Heart transplant recipient extends gratitude to donor family

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

What do you say to a family whose gift is keeping you alive?

That’s what Rufus Scott has on his mind. After living with a declining heart for 15 years, the 53-year-old father of three received a new heart on June 12, 2020, during a 12-hour transplant surgery at Emory University Hospital.

Scott, who lives on Lake Lanier in Hall County, knows very little about his heart donor or the family, except that the family agreed to take their loved one off of life support on that summer day so Scott could keep living. Last year, he wrote the family a letter and sent it through his nurse coordinator at the Emory Heart Transplant Program. Scott hopes for a response because he wants to thank them in person.

In his letter, Scott wrote: “Gratitude to each of you overwhelms me, and there is absolutely no way for me to adequately express my appreciation. All of you have given me a new opportunity for life, and, as I go forward, I can only pledge to you that I will try to make my life and the life of your loved one worthwhile.”

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Scott was a healthy and athletic 34-year-old in 2008 when he developed cardiomyopathy. The progressive disease came on suddenly. One day he felt sick, couldn’t breathe well, and was sent to the emergency room. The diagnosis was congestive heart failure. Scott said doctors believed viral pneumonia attacked his heart. His condition was critical from the start.

“One doctor told my mom if I didn’t get a heart within the next four years, I’d die,” he said.

He was on medications for a while, then survived through two pacemakers, but his heart kept deteriorating. Scott had been living in Tacoma, Washington, but in 2010 returned to metro Atlanta, where he grew up, to be closer to his family. He became a patient of Dr. Jefferson T. Baer, chief of cardiology at Emory.

In 2018, Scott hit an all-time low. First, his only sister died of pancreatic cancer, and his father’s prostate cancer metastasized. Then, Scott suffered two back-to-back heart attacks. That summer, Scott was hospitalized in Emory’s intensive care unit, with his room only five doors down from his father’s room. His mother, Essie Scott, 80, remembers how devastating 2018 was for the family.

“Through all of this, Rufus has taken care of me. I needed him to be here, and he fought for that,” she said.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Scott made it out of the hospital but would live the next 2 1/2 years with a left ventricle assist device (LVAD) surgically attached to his heart to help it pump. The machine operated on batteries that constantly needed recharging, and, at night, Scott stayed tethered to a 15-foot cord plugged into an outlet.

“It’s totally life-changing at that point,” he remembered. “But this would allow me to live my life while waiting for a heart.”

He refused to be defeated. Two weeks after his LVAD surgery, he amazed his doctors by attending the Atlanta Falcon’s 2018 season opener. Sadly, his dad died a couple of months later.

“My family had a really hard time that year, but we stuck through it with a lot of faith and family values,” Scott said. “God saw us through the rough times.”

Life with his LVAD wasn’t easy, and Scott had several hospitalizations. During one of those, he was approved as a candidate for an experimental TransMedics Organ Care System (OCS) Heart System, known as “heart in a box.” The medical device preserves the organ during transport, allowing more time and distance to procure life-saving organs. In addition, it increased Scott’s chances of getting a new heart.

On June 11, 2020, Scott received a phone call that changed his life. The transplant team had a heart offer. The following day, he was at Emory Hospital for his transplant surgery, directed by Dr. David Vega, cardiac surgeon with the Emory Heart & Vascular Center. COVID-19 restrictions meant no family members could be with him.

Scott was in the hospital for 10 days following his surgery and was able to recover at his home with his daughter, mother and two Great Danes.

Since then, he’s received a clean bill of health, and he works out regularly and eats a healthy diet to stay that way. He also reaches out to encourage and advise other heart patients who contact him from around the country.

Scott’s “optimistic spirit, regardless of how sick or uncomfortable he has been,” is inspiring, said longtime family friend Joanne Burgess, a retired professor.

“Rufus radiates collegiality like no one else I know,” said Burgess. She also praised Scott’s deep appreciation of the heart donor and his pledge to quality life endeavors.

Scott said he is grateful for the support he’s gotten from friends across the country, and prayers from so many churches.

“I have a lot to be thankful for from that family,” Scott said. “This has allowed me to raise my 5-year-old daughter and still be here on Earth and not give my mom more pain and sorrow. I think I have a lot to offer. God’s not done with me yet. He’s got a plan for me. So I try to help others who are struggling.”