Patrick Holland received one of those calls that can change everything three days before Christmas.
Holland, a 57-year-old Fairbanks man battling a life-threatening cardiac condition, was on the phone with a heart transplant coordinator at the University of Washington Heart Institute in Seattle. A heart was about to become available. It was a perfect match.
When he got the call on Thursday evening, the first emotion Holland felt was fear. He follows a lot of transplant recipient stories. Not all of them end well.
But soon that initial fear was replaced by hope.
“I started thinking how I could maybe be getting another 20 years, another 30 years with my family,” Holland said in an interview this week.
He arrived at Fairbanks International Airport a few hours after the phone call for a hastily arranged Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle.
Holland had no idea that weather-related travel delays would ultimately keep him from getting a heart this time. But he’s still hopeful, and holding on to a positive outlook on his future and life.
He had become eligible for a heart just 2 1/2 weeks earlier, after years of illness following a heart attack at the age of 29. Recent X-rays showed his heart was twice the size of a normal one.
Holland and his wife, Haley Holland, started a blog called “Big Heart” to share his journey to health with friends and family, and anyone else who wanted to follow along.
His doctors had told him it could take months for a match to be found, but that without one, his life would likely be cut short. The heart waiting for him last week was ideal: The donor was similar to Holland in height and weight and was only in his 30s.
When Holland arrived at the airport in Fairbanks to catch his overnight flight to Seattle, he found out it was canceled due to one of the worst ice events the city had seen in years. Freezing rain ended up temporarily shutting down all of the runways at Sea-Tac early Friday morning and led to hundreds of flight cancellations.
Back home, Haley Holland was desperately trying to help.
“I posted to Facebook. I prayed. I asked for prayer. I messaged furiously with various people. One friend graciously attempted a different avenue to buy a ticket for me, only to be thwarted at every turn,” she wrote on the blog.
“The 3 year old had fallen asleep so I bought myself and the other three kids Taco Bell. Mine sat cold as I messaged and researched and switched tabs on my phone with lightning speed.”
After an hour of standing in line at the airport, Patrick Holland asked an Alaska Airlines agent if there was anything she could do to help him get to his transplant in time. She quickly found him a seat on another flight to Seattle that was in the process of boarding.
“Was that … our dreams coming true? Or a nightmare?” Haley Holland wrote.
He got on the plane. The possibility of adding decades to his life “or at least watching my three year old son graduate filled me with the sense of being blessed beyond all measure,” Holland wrote in an email.
As the plane began to descend four hours later — it was early Friday morning at that point — Holland heard an announcement from the pilot that at first he thought was a mistake.
“Welcome to Anchorage,” the pilot said.
“My gut turned into a hundred knots thinking she must have put me on the wrong flight. Why would it take four hours to get to Anchorage?” Holland wrote.
A flight attendant confirmed his fears: The plane had been rerouted to Anchorage instead of Seattle due to the weather.
“I felt like my life was slipping away,” Holland said.
He called his transplant coordinators, who told him it was OK — just catch the next flight to Seattle. Holland felt hopeful again.
But then that flight was canceled, and Holland called the coordinator back in a panic. She told him not to worry. “This heart is for you. We’ll hold it as long as we can,” she told him.
But when the third flight in a row was canceled, Holland knew it was probably too late. The coordinator confirmed it during a final call that morning.
It was devastating news.
“I was terrified that I had just lost the chance to maybe get another 30 years,” Holland said.
His wife updated the transplant blog just after 10:30 a.m. Friday: “They gave the heart to someone else. Patrick will be coming home.”
Holland, sitting on a plane far from family, was exhausted. He’d cried more in the previous two hours than he’d ever cried in his life. He was thankful for the Alaska Airlines agents who he believed had done everything they could to get him to that hospital.
He felt sadness for the donor, a man who had died. He felt joy for the family that was next in line and would be receiving the heart, and that he’d be spending Christmas at home with his family instead of in a hospital bed. And frustration that if he’d been living in Seattle instead of Fairbanks, the heart would have been his.
“I’ve never had so many emotions in one day,” he said.
For Holland, life goes on as usual for now. He’ll attend his children’s school recitals. Be kind to others. Be thankful for what he has.
He’s working on finding a place in Seattle to live temporarily while he waits for a heart to become available, so he doesn’t miss out next time.
His doctors have assured him that what happened with the flight delays won’t bump him farther down on the transplant list.
”We’re hoping someone in our church network or friends network knows someone willing to put up with a ruggedly handsome bald guy who likes to make people laugh and who has a perpetually positive outlook on life,” he wrote.
Holland offered advice to Alaskans who want to help.
“They can love their neighbors. They can check on the elderly who live alone or with no family nearby. They can take soldiers and airmen and their families into their homes for holiday dinners. They can take the single mom’s trash to the dump for her,” he wrote. “In short, Alaskans can look after one another. They can examine the resources available to them and find ways to use those resources for the good of others. They can return the motorized cart to the store, smile at a cashier, and tip the waitstaff.”
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