The Housmans, a Franklin Square family, host a golf and dinner fundraiser every year to raise money for organ, eye and tissue donation organizations and to help alleviate the financial burdens families face while loved ones wait for transplants. But since many people who support the Housmans’ nonprofit, Hearts for Russ, are organ recipients themselves and are on immunosuppressants, the family decided to hold the fundraiser virtually this year, on Oct. 8.
“I know many of you are totally sick of Zoom,” Hearts for Russ President Doug Housman said as the event began. But, he added, “Tonight is a celebration. It’s a celebration of Russ.”
Doug’s younger brother, Russ, was born in 1968 with transposition of the great arteries — a rare but serious heart defect in which the two main arteries leaving the heart are reversed — and a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of his heart. Doctors told his parents, Joyce and Russ Housman Sr., that Russ Jr. might not survive, and they had him baptized immediately.
Fortunately, however, Russ managed to have a normal life until he was 10, according to the Hearts for Russ website, when he had a heart attack while playing at a friend’s house, and in 1977 he became the second child in the world to receive a pediatric pacemaker.
He started dating Pam Cruickshanks in 1986, and they were married in 1992 and moved to Franklin Square, where they raised two daughters, Carollynn and Cydney. Russ became a master woodworker, electrician and salesman. But in 2012, he began to experience shortness of breath. That November, his pacemaker was replaced with a smaller and more powerful defibrillator, and he and Pam found out he was eligible for a heart transplant.
In January 2013, Russ was placed on the list of New Yorkers who needed heart transplants, and was told that, in the meantime, he needed a left ventricular assist device to support his heart. But the device couldn’t do so for long, and that April, he had an artificial heart implanted — a pump that circulates blood and replaces heart ventricles that are diseased or damaged — and could not leave the hospital until he received a transplant.
Russ waited for more than a year for a viable donor, and eventually his muscles deteriorated, his kidneys shut down, he lost his appetite and he was placed on a ventilator. He couldn’t walk or talk, and he kept getting chest infections.
“I was scared on a daily basis, terrified of just losing him,” Pam said in a video about Russ’s life, “and I felt bad hoping for somebody to pass that could help him.”
Finally, on Aug. 4, 2013, Pam was told that a viable heart had been found. The transplant took 23 hours, but was unsuccessful. Russ died on Aug. 7, 2013, at age 42.
“It was really amazing how he worked through a broken heart pretty much his entire life,” Doug said, describing his brother as a Good Samaritan. “He was a shirt-off-his-back kind of guy who was always willing to help others.”
To help keep that spirit alive, the Housmans founded Hearts for Russ as a nonprofit in 2014, and have since raised over $100,000 for organizations that help those who need organs, organ recipients and their families. Hearts for Russ also seeks to educate the public about the need for organ donors, and honors those in the transplant community who have made a difference.
At last week’s fundraiser, participants heard from representatives of the organizations Hearts for Russ supports, including Aisha Taotr, executive director of Donate Life New York State, which operates the donor registry; Missy Rahman, executive director of Harboring Hearts, which used a grant from Hearts for Russ to provide housing and transportation for eight families at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset; and the Long Island Chapter of the Transplant Recipients International Organization, which supports transplant patients and promotes organ donation.
The Long Island TRIO also worked with Hearts for Russ to make three 30-second videos about organ recipients’ lives for the Department of Motor Vehicles, which were shown during the fundraiser. They featured a woman named Shelby Caban, who said she needed a heart transplant at age 10 to survive end-stage heart failure, and now tries to be generous “because I have someone else’s life inside of me”; an emergency medical technician named Jack Cloonan who underwent three liver transplants before he turned 2; and Jennifer Lentini, who had a heart transplant when she was 13.
“If it wasn’t for someone making a decision,” Lentini said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Many others echoed that sentiment when accepting their awards from Hearts for Russ. Chris Klug, a three-time Olympic snowboarder who had a liver transplant a year and a half before winning a bronze medal at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, said he wanted to show the world what an organ recipient could accomplish. And Bill Corbett, who received a kidney transplant from his wife, former Floral Park Mayor Ann Corbett, said he hoped anyone who was watching would consider being an organ donor.
“I’m just stunned and amazed when I see what organ donation can do,” Doug Housman said.
Dr. Robert Montgomery, the chairman of surgery at NYU Langone, who pioneered a laparoscopic kidney transplant and received a heart transplant himself from a hepatitis C positive donor two years ago, said that improvements are always being made to transplant surgery, including the use of bio-artificial organs and organs that have been genetically engineered.
“It’s a journey,” Doug said, “and your support helps us continue it.”
Hearts for Russ raised a total of $37,000 on Oct. 8, breaking its previous fundraising effort. To donate, go to www.HeartsforRuss.org, and to sign up to be an organ donor, go to www.OrganDonor.gov or visit your local DMV.