Her extraordinarily successful transplant was the first in the Washington area. It was performed at Fairfax Hospital (now Inova Fairfax) in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 1986, by a team of doctors and nurses who had never attempted one before.
Led by thoracic surgeon Edward Lefrak, the group had practiced only on corpses in a hospital morgue. Once, they were joined there by Christiaan Barnard, the South African heart transplant pioneer, who watched Lefrak’s technique and kibitzed.
At the time of the surgery, Ms. Baisey, a single mother of two who lived in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, was dying of idiopathic cardiomyopathy; her heart was swollen and failing for undiagnosed reasons. She could barely walk a block without having to stop and gasp for air.
Ms. Baisey had little money and no insurance. But she had strong family support and a ferocious will to survive for the sake of her two babies.
At the time, Fairfax Hospital was trying to enter a local heart-transplant industry then limited to Richmond and Baltimore, placing a burden on prospective Washington-area patients.
Fairfax needed a few public triumphs to establish a reputation. They had decided to offer the first few surgeries free to people who could not afford competitor hospitals with track records — but those initial surgeries, particularly the first, had to be successful.
In Ms. Baisey, they found the perfect Patient One.
But they still had no suitable donor, and Ms. Baisey’s time was rapidly running out. In the end, it took an unimaginable tragedy for her to survive.
Karen Ermert, a 19-year-old woman from suburban Virginia, had just broken up with her boyfriend, a brooding, jealous, lovesick paranoiac named Mark Willey. He shot her to death on Dec. 27, then turned the gun on himself. It was not Ermert’s heart that became available — that organ died instantly, with her. But Willey’s heart kept beating long enough to be saved, and it saved Ms. Baisey.
After the surgery, Ms. Baisey and Lefrak became friends. For the rest of her life, doctor and patient talked and texted at least a few times a year, and always on the anniversary of the surgery. They last communicated just a few days ago, when Ms. Baisey told Lefrak she had been fighting a persistent fever and had been diagnosed with covid-19.
“She wanted to reassure me that she would be okay,” said Lefrak, who is now retired. “She was concerned about me, not herself, which was Eva, exactly.”
Her love and optimism, Lefrak said, were the qualities that most helped her survive in what can be an emotionally difficult recovery process. “There’s no science on the subject,” he added, “but I’ve seen the opposite and I know it’s debilitating.”
At the time of her surgery, Ms. Baisey was a nursing student. She had always said she wanted “to help old people and babies.” But after the surgery, she was told that career was no longer possible because of the risk of infection. It came as a huge disappointment.
She tried other occupations, which did not satisfy her; eventually, because of her remarkable recovery, the medical community relented. She became a nurse, working at the World Bank, at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and most recently at a private doctor’s office in Reston, Va.
As a transplant patient taking anti-rejection medications, Ms. Baisey was immunocompromised. She understood she was at risk and stopped working in 2020 to wait out the pandemic. Lefrak says she was initially hesitant to get vaccinated. He cajoled. She resisted.
Half jokingly, Ms. Baisey promised the doctor she would do it, but only after former first lady Michelle Obama did. When that happened, Lefrak triumphantly informed Ms. Baisey, who kept her word. Still, the virus won.
Eva Elizabeth Baisey, a resident of Capitol Heights, Md., was born in Washington on May 2, 1966. She attended what was then McKinley Technical High School and later received a GED certificate.
In addition to her son, of Hyattsville, Md., survivors include her mother, Barbara Chisley of Washington; a daughter, Shakeyta Baisey of Capitol Heights; two brothers; and two sisters.
Antonio Baisey remembers his mother for her upbeat attitude to encourage others to press on, undeterred, whatever the challenge. “Whenever life got tough for me or complicated,” he said, “she always told me, ‘This too shall pass.’ She was always right, and now I’ve got to use that to deal with this.”
Heart transplant recipients sometimes are incurious about the details of the lives of their donors. It is not ingratitude, it is self-preservation. Their ordeal is already difficult, and it does not help to incorporate the tragedy of another.
Ms. Baisey was not told the full story about the source of her heart until this writer revealed it to her in 2013 for a book about the events of a so-called “ordinary” day chosen at random. Coincidentally, the day happened to be the day of her surgery.
“How do you feel about having the heart of a murderer?” she was asked. It was a rude, impertinent question, but she took no offense. What she did take was time, nearly two minutes to consider her answer.
“Okay, it could have been a car accident,” she said. “Someone dying for no reason at all. Something meaningless.”
But “someone loved someone so hard they couldn’t bear to live without them,” she continued. “Yes, it is selfish. I don’t want anyone to love me to death. But it all comes out of a need to be wanted, to passionately connect with another person. That is not meaningless. That comes out of something good. And something good came out of that.”
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