What are the odds? Two young men, both high school coaches. Not just coaches, but football coaches. Two Indiana husbands and fathers, separated by 17 miles of U.S. Highway 20.
Both in need of a heart transplant. At the same time.
One of them, who coaches at Northridge High in Middlebury, received his new heart in May in Indianapolis. The other, who coaches at LaGrange Lakeland, is still on the waiting list. When it’s time, he too will travel to Indianapolis for his new heart.
Two young men, strangers really, separated by four years of age and 17 miles of road.
Their football teams play Friday night.
What are the odds?
* * *
Before all this, Bryan Fisher didn’t know David Priestley. He knew the name, of course. Seventeen miles away, another football coach with the same job? Fisher knew Priestley’s name, knew his job, but that was about it.
And then a phone rang in Fisher’s hospital room at St. Vincent Indianapolis.
It was Priestley, 39, wanting to talk about the lightning bolt that had struck at the same time, same place, in both their lives. In April in Indiana, 36 people in a state of 6.6 million needed a heart – and two of them were high school football coaches, 17 miles apart. Priestley is a varsity assistant and the freshman head coach at Lakeland. Fisher has the same two roles at Northridge.
The odds, right? They’re crazy. And they’re about to get crazier: Northridge and Lakeland were scheduled to play a preseason scrimmage on Aug. 14 — this coming Friday — before any of this happened.
But then it happened. To both men. And so Priestley called Fisher a few months ago and said they had a chance to do something special.
Yes, Bryan Fisher said. Yes.
And so this night, between two schools featuring two young men in need of brand new hearts, is less about football, more about organ donation. The Indiana Donor Network will be there, signing up new donors. Information booths will be available to discuss the facts of organ donation. They are uplifting, and they are grim.
In 2014, 507 people in Indiana received the miracle of a new organ from 156 donors. But the need is greater than the miracle, and the message isn’t being heard. More than 1,400 people in Indiana await an organ as we speak. Just 52 percent of Marion County is donor designated. While the word is slowly spreading, people here are waiting.
People here are dying.
* * *
The surgeon gave 43-year-old Bryan Fisher a 5 percent chance to survive the night.
And it started so small. His hands and feet were cold, had been for a few months. Poor circulation, a local doctor decided. But then Fisher’s nose became chilly to the touch. His fingers grew so cold and prickly, it hurt to type on the computer.
Bryan Fisher was a full-time online college student and a substitute science teacher at Northridge. He needed a permanent teaching job. He needed the degree. So he sat up nights, typing in tears.
“That’s how bad he hurt,” wife Christy says.
Stubborn man? You could say that. It saved his life.
What nobody knew then, what they know now, is that Fisher’s heart was failing him. Fluid was building quietly in his lungs — and his heart, like a watch whose battery is winding down, was struggling to keep him alive. And so it was on the night of Jan. 11 that Bryan Fisher tossed and turned for 30 minutes, cold and uncomfortable, until he got out of bed and sat in front of that dang computer and started working on his lesson plan for the next school day.
Had he fallen asleep, he never would’ve woken up.
“Doctors say I would have drowned,” Bryan says.
Fisher went to school Jan. 12, stopping several times to make it up the stairs, and teaching in starts and stops. That evening Christy insisted on taking him to the emergency room. His heart was so weak, working at less than 10 percent efficiency, doctors couldn’t take blood from that spot near the elbow.
“Blood was barely being pumped past his shoulders,” Christy says.
Immediate surgery was scheduled to give Bryan a heart pump. His odds of making it off the table: 10 percent. Odds of seeing the morning: 5 percent. Christy had to leave to be with her daughter in a hotel down the road, afraid she was saying goodbye to her husband of 17 years.
“Have I told him how much I love him?” she wondered. “Does he know how important he is to our family? If he doesn’t come out of this, did he know?”
She sat in the hospital lobby for two hours, unable to leave. She didn’t sleep that night, calling the hospital every half-hour for updates. When she returned at 6 a.m., Bryan was sitting in bed, telling her he needed a new heart.
* * *
The silver Chrysler 200 is parked outside. The bag is in the trunk. The cellphone is turned on, always. David and Stacey Priestley go to sleep every night hoping this is the night the phone rings and the race is on.
Once an organ is removed from the donor’s body, doctors have four to six hours to put it into the recipient. IU Health Methodist Hospital handles more than 500 organ transplants annually — roughly 25 each year are hearts, the first on Oct. 30, 1982, by cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Harold Halbrook. It can transplant an organ from 1,000 miles away, flown by private jet. LaGrange is about 2½ hours away by car. David Priestley will get there in time.
“Just waiting on the call,” he says.
He thought it was bronchitis. It was February 2014, he was working outside at the metal shop, and he assumed. Months passed, and he got no better. He stopped assuming.
A hospital found the first clot in his lung, then the second clot in his arm. Turns out, his heart was the problem. Doctors opened his chest and gave him a left ventricle assist device, or an LVAD —Bryan Fisher had one of those, too — and put him on the donor list.
David Priestley waits. But he’s a coach, and his mentors — from Ed Doyle in a LaGrange youth league to Lakeland head coach Keith Thompson — always told him coaching was more than coaching. It was serving the community around you. And this scrimmage Friday, delivering this message of organ donation, is Priestley’s way to serve.
“If somehow this helps me (get a heart), wonderful,” Priestley says. “If it doesn’t, the whole point of doing this was to help others and raise awareness that will help somebody.”
Seventeen miles away, Bryan Fisher has been that somebody. He received his heart in May. Who gave it to him, he has no idea. Not yet. But when the time is right, he will send that family a letter. He’s been writing it in his head. No, he’s been writing it with his heart.
“I want to say thank you for what they’ve given me,” Fisher says, “and let them know I’m going to lead a good life. I’m going to use this new heart to make a difference in the lives of the kids I coach and teach over the next hopefully several decades. Their gift is going to do some good in this world.”
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Middlebury Northridge at LaGrange Lakeland
Lakeland High School
805 E. 075 North
LaGrange IN 46761
Gates open Friday at 6 p.m., with kickoff at 7.