20th Anniversary Celebration of The Gift of Life

A news conference and luncheon was held Tuesday, May 15 to celebrate the reunion of people that played key roles in an extraordinary heart transplant that saved a little boy's life 20 years ago.In 1986, a child at MeritCare Children's Hospital (then St. Luke's) gave the generous gift of organ donation, helping a child in California who desperately needed a new heart. Due to a series of dramatic events, then Gov. George Sinner and the N.D. Air National Guard intervened to heroically deliver the heart from Fargo to California so that it could be transplanted. The heart recipient, Andrew De La Pena, is now a healthy college student and was in Fargo with his parents for a reunion with personnel involved in this life-saving mission. The De La Penas also met the donor family, Steve and Karen McCann, whose strength during unimaginable grief gave Andrew the gift of life.

A re-cap of the heroic events of 1986 presented during the May 15 news conference and luncheon. This is a story of two families, of death and life, of two surgical teams diligently working against the clock and as it turns out, against the odds.

This is a true story of events played out in real-time, which bring us together for this anniversary celebration. Stephen De La Pena and Deborah McCarthy lived and worked across the bay from San Francisco. They had one son, Christopher, and a daughter, Sarah. In her infancy Sarah was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal heart defect characterized by a thickened inner lining of the heart. Because of her genetic heart efect, Sarah's life ended prematurely at only six months of age in May 1985.

The following July, Deborah and Stephen welcomed a son named Andrew. He appeared healthy and weighed eight pounds, 13 ounces at birth. Two weeks after birth, Andrew began breathing fast, a symptom his sister, Sarah, exhibited prior to her diagnosis and death. His parents rushed Andrew to Oakland Children's Hospital where he, too, was diagnosed with the same rare and potentially fatal heart defect.

Karen and Steve McCann's story begins with the birth and death of their son, Michael —both events tragically close together. Michael died unexpectedly at just four months old. Amazingly, the McCanns were able to see past their grief and generously agreed to donate their son's organs so that other children might have a chance at life. It was at St. Luke's Hospital, now MeritCare, where their noble decision set in motion the events that followed.

It was two days before Christmas in 1986 when Michael's death brought about the prospect of continued life for Andrew. By 1986 heart transplantation had become a more common surgical procedure for adults, 18 years after the first successful U.S. heart transplant was
performed by Dr. Norman E. Shumway at Stanford University Medical Center. But for infants, heart transplantation was rare.

The logistics were difficult. One team of surgeons in Fargo would recover Michael's heart. Another team of surgeons at Stanford would prepare Andrew for surgery to receive the heart. The ideal time span between organ recovery and transplantation would be no more than four hours. However, with the distance between Fargo and Stanford it might take five hours.

The medical clock began the moment Michael's heart was recovered for transplant at St. Lukes: 11:45 p.m., December 23. The Stanford Medical team boarded a Lear jet at Fargo's Hector International Airport prepared to depart with their precious cargo 30 minutes later. As the aircraft moved on the ramp, the interior cabin lights blinked and the aircraft came to a halt. After several minutes, the pilots shared the frightening news — the number one engine, mounted on the left fuselage, would not start. They could not get airborne without both engines. It was 12:15 a.m. Immediately, work began at the airport to try to get the Lear's second engine to light. A propane heater was applied to raise the temperature around the engine cowling in the belief bitter cold conditions prevented the engine from igniting. When that didn't work, a wooden broom handle was set afire and place into the engine intake. When that didn't work, gasoline-soaked rags placed underneath and behind the engine were set on fire to create additional heat. Still, the engine would not start.

The clock ticked past 1 a.m. and the search for a replacement aircraft began. There were no jet aircraft immediately available that night in Fargo. Marguerite Brown, a transplant coordinator from Stanford, spent an hour on the phone trying to find an aircraft that might be available, when an airman from the North Dakota Air National Guard appeared at the Valley Aviation hangar. His words hung in the air — "Get in contact with Governor George Sinner; he might be able to help." At 2:10 a.m. the phone rang at the North Dakota Governor's residence in Bismarck. Dr. Tom Witt, son-in-law of Governor Sinner and a medical doctor, answered the phone. Dr. Edward Stinson, the lead Stanford surgeon in Fargo, explained the team's urgent need. Dr. Witt understood the importance of quick action and promised a return call within five minutes. Once alerted to the situation, Governor Sinner sprung into action and called the North Dakota National Guard Adjutant General, Major General Alexander P. Macdonald. He asked about the ability of an F-4 fighter aircraft at the Fargo base, armed with live air-to-air missiles and fulfilling a NORAD air defense alert commitment, to be used to facilitate an emergency transport mission.

Within 30 minutes NORAD agreed to release the aircraft and expedient flight planning began. The F-4 is, and was, designed as a military fighter aircraft, flown by a pilot and a weapons system officer in two separate cockpits. There was no provision made for internal cargo space on the F-4, and an external travel pod would have subjected the contents to extreme cold. The only viable option was for the pilot to fly solo with the red and white cooler strapped inside the rear cockpit.

At 3:06 a.m. Lieutenant Bob Becklund, one of two alert pilots on duty that night, took off solo and headed west toward the Pacific coast. The plan was to land the F-4 at Hill Air Force Base near Salt Lake City where a Lear jet would be waiting to bring the heart to Stanford. Lieutenant Becklund's aircraft landed at 4:55 a.m. — five hours and ten minutes on the medical clock. When the Lear jet did not arrive, the F-4 was refueled with engines running and departed Hill Air Force Base with even greater urgency at 5:28 a.m. Lieutenant Becklund arrived at Moffett Naval Air Station at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay at 6:43 a.m. and handed his precious cargo to a team from Stanford, anxiously waiting to return to the operating suite where Andrew was ready to receive his new heart.

Without the generous and life-giving decision made by the McCanns, we might not be here today. Without the persistence of many medical professionals, we might not be here today. Without the quick reaction by several different military organizations, we might not be here today. Everyone involved has so much for which to be grateful, and so much to celebrate.