HARTFORD, Conn. – George Petro Jr. runs a hand through his closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair and begins sobbing softly. Standing in the same hospital room where eight days earlier he received a heart transplant, the sobbing grows, his shoulders heaving up and down.
He knows he shouldn’t remove the light yellow surgical mask covering his nose and mouth, but he does anyway. A chorus of objections immediately ensues from the nearby collection of doctors and nurses. George sheepishly places the mask back on.
“I’m sorry,” he says through tears. “I guess this is an example of what not to do.”
It’s just that he can’t help himself. For 169 days, ever since Christmas Eve, he’d been here in Hartford Hospital, waiting for his transplant. He has literally been given a new lease on life – and if that isn’t enough to inspire him, George is now standing face to face with a man who has dedicated himself to inspiring people like him.
ERIK COMPTON is the only heart transplant recipient to play on the PGA Tour, having twice undergone this surgery. His story has made headlines for years, how he received his first transplant at age 12, then another at 28, but it reached a new high this past weekend, appealing to the masses as he finished in a share of second place at the U.S. Open.
Even though Compton has been making hospital visits since he turned professional, first independently and in the last three years as part of a partnership between Genentech and Donate Life, he’s cognizant of how this one might look two days after his career-best result.
“I don’t want this to seem like I’m just doing it because of the U.S. Open,” explains Compton, who is competing in this week's Travelers Championship in nearby Cromwell. “This is a regular thing that I do. I’m not doing it for the publicity.”
Erik Compton and George Petro Jr. at Hartford Hospital
He understands the impact he can make. He understands how patients who are hooked up to machines, just like he once was, can see his success and use it as fuel.
“I remember visiting a young kid,” he says. “His name was Kevin Garcia and he was 12 years old and he did not want to speak to me. He did not want to speak to anybody. But I relayed him a little bit of a message and I left a golf bag in his room and when I left it made a huge impact on him, because now he's a huge golfer and he's 21 years old and he's doing well with his transplant. You never know the impact that you're going to have on a kid.”
Shawn Fullard isn’t a kid anymore. Retired from the Connecticut Department of Corrections, where she served as a prison counselor, she underwent her first heart transplant in 1998. She needs a new one now – and a kidney, too. In the meantime, she spends her days lying in a hospital bed, wistfully looking out a bay window.
“At least you have a window,” Compton says while visiting with her.
Shawn had never heard of Compton, didn’t know his story until she was recently told that he’d be stopping by her room. So she did some research, then watched the U.S. Open on the small television attached to her bed.
“It was exciting,” she says. “I was so proud of him coming in second.”
Now here he is, the man who’d played golf on that small TV in her room less than 48 hours earlier, standing here in front of her, admiring her view.
Shawn begs to differ, though. “I don’t want to look outside,” she admits. “I can’t get out there. My husband comes in and says, ‘Oh, baby, it’s a beautiful day out there.’ I just want to kill him.”
The room grows silent. What do you say to a woman who can’t go outside? What do you say to someone who is constantly tormented by a reminder of her pain?
Compton breaks the silence with words that can only come from experience.
“You just have to visualize yourself getting out there,” he explains. “You’ve done it once, you can do it again.”
GEORGE IS a golfer. Not a pro like Compton, he assures him, but pretty decent in his own right, usually shooting around 8 or 10 over par at his local muni.
He can’t wait to play again – and maybe he’ll invite his fellow transplant recipient along someday.
“I’d love to golf with Erik,” he says. “He showed me that I have a second chance. He did it twice. I have a lot to live for.”
It’s about more than just golf, though. For a man who spent nearly six months in a hospital room before receiving his transplant, he just wants to enjoy this new lease on life.
“A week ago, I didn’t have the heart,” George explains. “Now I have it. I can’t wait to smell the air outside.”
He begins sobbing once again, his shoulders heaving up and down. This time, his mask remains on. It collects the tears as they trickle down.