Location: Loma Linda, California
Date: July 24, 1982
On July 24, 1982, Yvonne Ayala of Los Angeles County gave birth to a baby boy, Fernando "Fernie" Ramos. When Fernie was six months old, he was diagnosed with a rare condition that causes the heart muscle to deteriorate and results in death. The only thing that could save his life was a heart trasnplant, but doctors were unwilling to perform the experimental surgery. They told Yvonne to make Fernie comfortable at home because he would die within six months to a year. But Yvonne had no intention of giving up on her son, and she continued to search for a miracle.
Fernie was put on medication and defied his doctors' prediction--he celebrated his second birthday. That same year, Yvonne saw a news report on television about a groundbreaking heart transplant performed on an infant by Dr. Leonard Bailey. She thought her prayers had been answered.
Yvonne got Fernie an appointment with Dr. Bailey's heart transplant team at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California. Dr. Bailey told Yvonne that Fernie could indeed be a candidate for a heart transplant-but he would have to be within six months of death before he could be placed on a nationwide transplant list. "So I waited," says Yvonne. "I thought, well, the hard part was over. But it wasn't."
For the next three years, Fernie's condition remained stable, but in January 1988, he began to deteriorate rapidly. Over four months, he was hospitalized three times for pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Now almost six years old and weighing only thirty-three pounds, Fernie was finally placed on the transplant list and transferred to Loma Linda. Doctors thought that if a heart was not found within a few weeks, Fernie would die. Yvonne turned to the media and made a desperate appeal to the public to help save her son.
The next day, less than twenty miles away, Audrey Radcliffe and her family received tragic news of a car accident. Audrey's brother, Dave, had been killed, and Dave's nine-year-old son, David, lay in the hospital, brain-dead. Doctors asked if the family would consider donating little David's organs.
"I love my son so much," says Dave's father, Lee Denehy, "and little David. And we thought that rather that it be a just a waste, there's a lot of other people waiting for somebody's heart and they're going through misery. The type of person Dave was, always helping everybody, this is what he'd want."
Fernie's long wait had finally ended. David's heart would be his last hope. As Fernie was wheeled into the operating room, Yvonne said good-bye, thinking this would probably be the last time she would ever see her son. She also thought about the donor's family sorrow and wondered if they knew where the heart was going.
Fernie's transplant operation was a success. David's heart was a perfect hit and it started beating immediately upon implantation. Says Dr. Bailey, "Every time we do a heart transplantation, it's an amazing miracle. You actually lift a heart out of someone and put it to sleep temporarily, and then implant it in someone you know has all the hopes and dreams for a future. And to have that heart come alive again and do what it's supposed to do is a genuine miracle. I'm awed by it."
One week later, Audrey and her family were eating dinner when they saw Yvonne on television, telling reporters that Fernie was alive thanks to his new heart. She had a special message for the donor's family. "I know you're watching me, and thank you," Yvonne said, looking directly into the camera. Right then and there, Audrey knew where David's heart had gone. Although hospital policy prohibits the release of the identities of transplant donors and recipients, Audrey located Fernie and Yvonne. The two families became very close, and today a photograph of David sits on Fernie's nightstand in a heart-shaped frame. "Fernie's like one of the family," says Audrey. "He's not my nephew, but he's a little boy who got a chance to go on. I can't thank Yvonne enough for letting us be a part of his life."
Says Dr. Bailey hopes that heart transplant recipients like Fernie will convince more people that organ donation is a good cause. "We can make Fernies happen everyday if we really work at it in this country and around the globe," says Dr. Bailey. "We can reverse some of the tragedies that happen and make them all victories."