Ken Abbott gestured with his hands as he emphasized the importance of being an organ donor. New York state has among the country’s lowest donation consent rates, according to the American Journal of Transplantation, he said, and he finds that statistic distressing.
“I’ve been given an incredible gift,” said Abbott, a Grand Avenue Middle School teacher whose life was saved by a heart transplant in 2016. “I want to share my experience so I can make an impact on other people so that, potentially, they can make a decision that could help others.”
Abbott was given a heart transplant on Dec. 23, 2016, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, after waiting six months for a donor.
“I was fortunate enough that on Dec. 22, while I was in the library during second period, I got the phone call,” Abbott said. “I rushed out, had the transplant, things went well, and I returned to school in April.”
Abbott’s wife, Eleanor, said that Ken made about 10 goodbye phone calls on his way to the hospital that morning, and, at first, she was afraid.
“You can imagine, right?” she said. “What if it doesn’t work?”
No matter how difficult it can be, however, Eleanor said, the most important thing a patient’s family can do is to stay positive and trust the doctors.
The earth science teacher had lived for five years with an internal pacemaker implant, after being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that attacked his heart.
While on vacation in Rome in 2016, Ken noticed that his stamina had diminished significantly, and he was soon implanted with a left ventricular assist device to help pump his blood because his heart had become too weak to do so.
He started the 2016-17 school year with the LVAD device.
“I had a bag with the batteries and the power cord sticking out of my side that you could see occasionally,” Ken said. He wrote a letter to parents letting them know that he might be called at any time to receive a new heart, which would mean an extended absence.
After roughly four months of recovery, he returned to school. “I remember I came back and … I walked into the cafeteria and there was one of my children, an eighth-grade girl who looks up at me,” Ken said. “She just starts crying. I almost started crying, and I just look at her and say, ‘It’s OK.’”
Ken said that he hopes to attend the 2018 Transplant Games of America in August, through his association with Live On New York, a nonprofit organ procurement organization in the metropolitan area of greater New York. Ten transplant recipients will be selected from the five organ procurement organizations in New York to represent the state in the games.
Ken said he could attend the games as a solo participant, but he wants to give himself the opportunity to fundraise for Mount Sinai Hospital or Live On New York.
“I’m not looking for any opportunity to make money for myself or to cover my expenses,” he said. “I make enough, and I’ve done well enough that I can spend a few thousand dollars to go meet five or six thousand other people who have gone through the experience. For me that’s going to be the nicest thing.”
Ken said that he and Eleanor hope to be more involved with Live On New York. Eleanor wants to talk to families experiencing the same thing she and her husband went through.
My students have “learned a lot about science, and I want my kids to do really well, but there are other lessons that you can impart and discuss,” Ken said. “I’ve seen there has been a change in my teaching and my interaction with the kids after living through this.”
Ken considers himself fortunate. He exercises and monitors his eating daily. Now 52 years old, he still feels the surgical effects more than a year after the transplant.
“He is amazing to me,” Eleanor said.