Charles McAtee turned 60 last month, and he hasn’t felt this good in years. He’s back to pushing a snowblower around his Western Maryland home. He feels half his age. In fact, his heart is.
This holiday season, McAtee holds dear a Baltimore County woman responsible for the best gift he ever received: her son’s heart.
In three hours and three minutes, that heart went from her son’s chest into McAtee’s. The two men matched height, weight and O Positive blood — that’s all. One was 27, one 57; one black, one white; one aspired to be a rapper, one retired from the Internal Revenue Service. Who could have expected the bond that would follow?
Now, there’s a mother proud despite her grief. There’s a retiree grateful to a perfect stranger. There are two families 70 miles apart, but forever joined. For them, hope comes from surprising places. The world feels a little smaller, its people not so different. As McAtee says, everyone’s heart is red.
“This wonderful woman, I just feel like I could squeeze her,” his wife, Terri, says.
It all began in 1979. McAtee’s own heart was poisoned.
Doctors had cut out a tumor, big as an orange, from his right lung. Then came six weeks of radiation. The lead vest was supposed to shield his organs, but the radiation reached his heart. Later, he would learn the term “radiation-induced cardiomyopathy.”
McAtee went on to graduate from Denison University in Ohio. He moved just across the Maryland border in West Virginia and started a $10,500-a-year job at the IRS computer center in Martinsburg. A member of the Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department, he carried the hoses, climbed the ladders and ran ambulance calls: 186 calls in 2004, the top volunteer EMT. The years went by, and he never knew his heart was weakening.
In May 2012, while carrying bags of mulch, he felt his heartbeat hammering. His pulse shot to 220 — twice the normal rate. On the way to the hospital, paramedics shocked him with a defibrillator.
The doctors implanted a stent, but alarming episodes continued. Charles and Terri traveled to Alaska in June 2014 to experience 22 hours of daylight and glimpse the glaciers. While riding the Alaska Railroad, the hammering returned. He was hospitalized overnight.
Back home, the medicines didn’t help. Neither did the stents nor his eventual heart surgery. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t breathe. He was 57 years old, and he felt winded walking upstairs or to the mailbox. By late 2015, it became clear. Charles needed a new heart.
Without one, doctors said, he had six months to live.
In January 2016, he checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital to wait and to hope. He knew the frightening statistic: about 20 people die every day in the U.S. while waiting for an organ transplant.
In the Baltimore area, doctors transplant about 50 hearts a year, but each heart must be fresh and close. One becomes unusable after about four hours. Charles couldn’t leave his room in the cardiac unit.
He taped a wall calendar beside his bed and tallied the passing days. Terri visited every day. She sneaked him homemade shrimp scampi and cut his hair in the bathroom sink. On his iPad, he watched old James Bond movies.
On Feb. 28, the doctors came in. A heart had become available. His surgery was scheduled for the morning. Everyone arrived to see him off: his sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephews, friends.
When the sedatives cleared later, he touched his chest gingerly. No bandage, no scar, nothing.
The donor’s family had changed their mind. There was no heart, the doctors said. Terri broke down, crying.
Charles returned to his room crushed. His time was running out. He repeated two words that had become his prayer: Patience. Hope.
In Owings Mills, Rhonda Phillips thought herself lucky to have her grown son as her best friend. Rondell Street was playful and goofy; he always cheered her up. What other mother and son went together to happy hour?
She had been a teenager herself when she had him back in 1989. Phillips had looked down at the baby boy squirming in her arms, seeing her same nose and hands. He was adorably bowlegged. She called him “Rondelley.”
Later she would laugh at his zany voices. Lord have mercy, he could dance. When she sang “So you met someone who set you back on your heels — goody, goody,” he would cock a hip, grin and snap his fingers like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
His grandmother had introduced him to The Temptations. She planted in him dreams of a music career. At Owings Mills High School, he played basketball and graduated in 2007. He always had plenty of girlfriends. Street took a job moving furniture. After work, he wrote rap lyrics and rented a studio to record his songs.
By spring of 2016, he had a fiancee, a son on the way and a job at the Amazon warehouse in Dundalk.
“All he wanted to do was work and be with his fiancee,” said Phillips, his mother.
The witness told police it was a robbery, but detectives couldn’t say why the gunman shot him in the face. Officers found Street before sunrise April 1, 2016, outside Ace Lounge in East Baltimore. The shooter had made off. The bullet had entered his brain.
At Hopkins, Phillips stared at the machines surrounding her 27-year-old son. One monitor was snowy like when the cable goes out. Doctors found no activity on the left side of his brain.
“He was never going to be able to open his eyes,” she said. “Seeing him laid up there like that and knowing nothing was going to change, it wasn’t really that hard. I said, ‘Let him go.’”
Only three in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donation, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A nurse told Phillips her son qualified; his organs were unharmed.
“I was like, okay,” Phillips said. “Hopefully, they will end up with someone good.”
Doctors removed his left kidney, right kidney and liver. These went to three different people, said a spokeswoman for the Living Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit that coordinates transplants in Maryland.
His heart went upstairs.
Phillips buried her son in white, though she allowed his Los Angeles Lakers socks. Months passed before a “thank you” card arrived from a man named Charles McAtee in Western Maryland. Then came a second card and a third. She wrote back with her name on Facebook.
“You get folks who go through the donation process and may never want to know or meet the recipients,” said Charlie Alexander, CEO of the Living Legacy Foundation. “You have others who literally days after the donation are clamoring to write the first letter.”
One year and six months after her son died, Phillips headed back to Johns Hopkins. She walked in the lobby at the appointed time.
There was Terri coming up, hugging her, holding her face and crying. There was Charles, smiling, thanking her, saying he feels 30 again. They gave her a necklace with angel wings.
Phillips felt proud. She remembered her hospital-room wish that her son’s heart go to someone good.
“God must have heard me,” she would say. “Him and his wife are the two most beautiful people.”
In the lobby, Charles began to unbutton his shirt.
“It’s beating fast today,” he told her.
Trembling, she put the stethoscope in her ears. She leaned close to his chest.
“I can hear it,” she said.
With tears running down her face, she listened to the beating heart of her dead son.