Robert A. Weiss does not look like a man with secrets. Bespectacled and casually dressed, this 27-year veteran of the University of Connecticut’s engineering department looks like your average middle-aged man.
While a mildly receding hairline and gentle softening of the midsection reveal his 57 years, Weiss has the heart of a much younger man. Literally.
Weiss is the successful subject of a heart transplant operation. An avid runner, he first realized something was wrong back in 2003 when he was having trouble finishing a five-mile run.
He thought age was to blame, but after a series of tests by his doctor it became apparent that there was a more exotic reason. Weiss was afflicted with sarcoidosis of the heart.
Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that can affect almost any organ in the body. It causes heightened immunity, which means that a person’s immune system, which normally protects the body from infection and disease, overreacts, resulting in damage to the body’s own tissues. Sarcoidosis very rarely attacks the heart, however.
In Weiss’s case there were two possible courses of action: Undergo heart transplant surgery, or probably die.
Weiss isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
He recalls that his father, an aeronautical engineer with NASA, once told him and his brothers, “Do something you enjoy but by all means don’t become engineers.” Weiss is now a chemical engineer and former associate director and polymer program director of UConn’s Institute of Materials Science.
When a sarcoid specialist in Boston (whom Weiss nicknamed Dr. Doom) told him he was going to die without a transplant, Weiss turned to more optimistic doctors (though he knew Dr. Doom was probably correct) and tried to fight the disease.
A self-professed cynic, Weiss approached his illness in the same calm, analytical manner with which he conducts himself in the professional world.
“I once asked a surgeon what’s the worst that could happen,” Weiss says. “He told me, ‘uh, you die on the table.’ I said, ‘okay, let’s do it.’”
Oftentimes, says Weiss, it was hard for him to allow his family to see him struggling with daily activities, and know that they were worrying about his health.
“We’re not a family that shares very easily,” Weiss confessed.
“Once I decided to get the transplant, there was no longer any thought of dying. The biggest fear I had was not dying, but becoming bedridden and being reliant on someone to do everything for me.”
Weiss worked right up until his surgery, which is very rare for most patients in need of a new heart. He was on the transplant list for only three months before getting the call that a heart was now available.
The call came right after Thanksgiving dinner in 2005, when Weiss was spending time with his wife, parents, and two grown children.
Because they had decided to have the surgery done in Hartford Hospital instead of a larger facility, there was a much smaller list of people needing a heart, and Weiss’s blood type – B – is rare enough that he was able to jump to the head of the line once a heart became available.
“At the hospital I said goodbye to my family, and the last thing I remember is telling the doctors that I come out of anesthesia very easily,” Weiss recalls.
He did not wake up for another four days. The irony of that is not lost on Weiss. Because of complications from the anesthetic, he remained unconscious for days, as his wife sat worrying about her husband’s fate.
After the surgery, Weiss was surprised how quickly he felt well again. Within days of being released from the hospital, he was back to jogging, albeit for much shorter distances.
The most pain from the recovery, he says, came not from physical ailments but from everyone treating him like glass.
“Everyone felt I was being a martyr,” he says. “I couldn’t convince them I was actually healthy.”
It has been almost three years since the surgery, and life is pretty much back to normal for Weiss.
“For the first year or so it was hard,” he says, noting that he considered his new heart to be a foreign object in his body. “It bothers me that a young kid had to die for me to live.”
The availability of a new heart, while miraculous for Weiss, resulted from a tragedy for another family. The previous owner was a 21-year old man who died in a car accident involving a drunk driver.
Through a hospital program, Weiss and his family have been able to get in touch with the donor’s family. This has been emotional for both parties.
The donor’s mother, who sent a picture of her son to Weiss, divulged that he had been married for just a month before his death and that he donated five organs to various patients in need. Weiss, who had long volunteered to be an organ donor, now actively participates in organizations promoting the process.
When asked whether he has significantly changed his outlook on life after the operation, Weiss quips, “I had a heart transplant, not a personality transplant.”
He admits to less-than-healthy eating habits at times, but he still enjoys exercising and all the activities he engaged in before being diagnosed with sarcoidosis of the heart.
Because sarcoidosis is thought to be triggered by exposure to chemicals, however, he does have a new-found reluctance to go into the lab – which is “kind of strange for a chemical engineer,” he says.
Weiss will have to take pills for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting his new heart. But with gallows humor, he says, “I’m alive. I can’t complain. Tomorrow I’m going to Disneyworld.”
In July, Weiss will take part in running and swimming events at the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh as a member of Team Connecticut.
Max Kramer wrote this article for a communication sciences class, Public Relations Writing, taught by Karen A. Grava.