Hardie Clifton was headed out the door in his track suit yesterday afternoon, a wool cap on his head, a bounce in his step and a secondhand heart thumping away in his chest.
It was two months to the day after they took his old heart out and threw it away, and just one day after they let him out of the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond. He hadn't even taken his hospital bracelet off.
"I feel great," said the 50-year-old professional gospel singer, who is settling back into his apartment in White Oak, just north of Takoma Park. Half an hour after he arrived home Sunday afternoon, he jumped into his van, went to the Golden Skillet and got some fried chicken. "It's been a long, long time," he laughed.
Clifton was born with a heart ailment, and had a pacemaker installed in 1977. But on July 2 his heart failed him. He was in critical condition at Southern Maryland Hospital Center, unable to walk, hardly even able to talk.
Doctors there thought the only thing to do was give him a new heart, but Clifton and his wife, Sherry, could only raise about $200 toward the medical bill. The Medical College of Virginia, where the heart transplant would be performed, wouldn't take him until a $30,000 deposit had been put down.
Sherry Clifton, seeing her husband dying unless they could find assistance, called every organization she could think of, and contacted congressmen and the White House.
Eventually, in late August, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes ordered that state Medicaid funds cover the operation, and the federal government promised to pay the other half.
So Clifton went to the Richmond hospital where, on Sept. 12, he was put on the register of patients ready to have heart transplants.
A couple of hours later he was told a new heart was available for him. That evening he underwent the operation, and awoke the next morning with a new heart.
"When they told him a heart was found, he said, "I was ready to go. I said 'Take me now. No messing around. Get it over.' "
He zipped down his track suit top to show the thick straight scar down the center of his chest. "They opened me up with a chain saw."
Clifton said the doctors won't tell him who donated his new heart. "Any kind of heart will be better than the one I had before," he said.
The Cliftons have used up almost all the money they received through donations, but the medical costs continue. Her husband must still go for daylong examinations twice a week in Richmond.
Doctors are watching him closely; in one study of 441 heart transplant patients, 50 percent died within five years.
Sherry Clifton said she is unable to work because of a back injury that she hopes can soon be corrected by surgery. Thus the Cliftons are living right now, they said, on a monthly income of $597 from Social Security and other benefits, and Clifton said he is anxious to get back to work.
Clifton said his voice is a bit hoarse, but that he hopes he can get back into gospel singing form with practice.
To get back to strength, he is pedaling an exercise bicycle in the kitchen, and walking around with three-pound weights strapped to his ankles.
Clifton and his wife have just bought a 1982 van to make the twice weekly trip to the hospital in Richmond. And Sherry Clifton has given her husband a small metal plaque to mount on the dashboard, with a photoengraving of him on one half and these words on the other:
"Hardie Clifton. Medical College of Virginia. 9-12-84. God has given you a new beginning."