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New year, new heart for Santa Rosa man

After 19 months on the waiting list for a donor heart, Jim Keegan was hours from seeing his best chance at a transplant slip away when the fear and uncertainty drove the Santa Rosa real estate broker and his wife, Diane, from their house.

Escaping to the coast in search of solace, the pair turned back toward home, suddenly worried spotty cellphone service might prevent them from receiving the life-saving call.

They were home less than half an hour when word arrived. A 19-year-old California man had died in an accident and Jim Keegan was to receive his heart via transplant that night at UC San Francisco Medical Center.

A day later, it was beating in his chest - the culmination of a roller-coaster 12 years of assessments, medicines, procedures, repeated heart failure and, finally, the surgery that literally granted Jim Keegan, 66, a new lease on life.

“The weight of the world is off my shoulders,” a still-giddy Diane Keegan said Monday, her words coming in a rush as she described the result for which hundreds of friends and supporters had hoped and prayed. “To have everything go so well, it just feels so good.”

On Saturday, just nine hours remained of a 30-day window, during which Keegan had priority status for a heart. That status was triggered by the surgical implantation three months earlier of a cumbersome mechanical device that was helping his heart function while he awaited a new one. On Jan. 4, he would have been knocked back to secondary status, reducing his chances of getting a heart.

Even as they hoped one would become available, they understood it would mean tragedy and loss for some other family, Diane Keegan said. Amid their advance prayers for whomever that might be, they kept Jim Keegan in virtual isolation, even from family, to ensure he wouldn’t pick up germs or illness that would put his candidacy at risk.

Jim Keegan had a little break - on Christmas Day, when, masked, he was able to share space with his four adult children and 10 grandkids, though he had to remain at a distance. After everyone left, his wife disinfected the house, she said.

But as New Year’s came, and the time for which Keegan would have priority consideration for any available heart counted down, he and his wife found their optimism tested, she said.

When they got “the call” at last Saturday afternoon, it proved so emotionally overwhelming for Diane that she started crying and screaming, practically hyperventilating, she said.

“I freaked out . . . and Jim was calm as a cucumber,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m driving.’ ”

As it turned out, his surgeon, Dr. Georg Wieselthaler, had been on vacation in Hawaii and luckily had returned a day early to catch up on paperwork, so he was on-hand to perform the transplant, she said.

“Some people believe in coincidence, some do not. I personally don’t. He was very, very lucky it worked out so well,” Wieselthaler said. He added that Jim Keegan is “doing great.”

“(Wieselthaler) had been home 12 hours, and the heart came in for Jim,” Diane Keegan said. “It’s just been a miracle. A miracle! Everything’s been a miracle.”

As always when going into surgery, Jim Keegan took with him a photo of the couple’s 5-year-old grandson, Waylon Jones, who has cystic fibrosis and so deals daily with necessary medical procedures and treatments that Keegan says inspire him to keep going.

The Keegans don’t yet know anything about the young man whose heart beats in Jim, only that he died in an accident.

Diane Keegan said she’s asked the family’s many friends and supporters to pray for his family and hope they find some peace in knowing he gave life to others.

But she hopes one day to write and let them know what their loved one’s heart means to her husband and family, including those grandkids who “love their Popi.”

Jim Keegan had gained strength in the nearly four months since receiving the LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, that made it possible for him to walk every day and made him feel so much better than he had previously, so he was in relatively good shape for the transplant surgery, his wife said.

By mid-day Monday, he was feeling so good he already had made three laps around the Intensive Care Unit at UCSF, accompanied by the entourage necessary to manage the many devices to which he was tethered by wires and tubes, his wife said.

“I haven’t been this happy in a long time,” Diane Keegan said.

Jim Keegan, co-founder of the North Bay’s largest commercial real estate firm, Keegan and Coppin, and a community leader on multiple nonprofit boards, was resting Monday afternoon and unable to talk.

But his wife, though still emerging from the whirlwind that was their weekend, said she wanted to tell his story in hopes of bringing attention to the organ donation issue and encouraging those who might be reluctant to sign up to donate.

The national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network says nearly 124,000 people around the country are waiting to receive organs for transplant. In California, there were more than 22,000 candidates, including 349 awaiting donor hearts as of Friday.

There’s at least one fewer now.

Though more than 11 million Californians have registered their desire to donate viable organs should they lose their own lives, that’s only about two in five who are eligible, said Tony Borders, communication manager for the California Transplant Donor Network. And “it’s easy” to sign up, he said.

California residents can sign up to be a transplant donor at any DMV office or online at donatelifecalifornia.org.

“Don’t take your organs to heaven with you,” Diane Keegan said, quoting the bumper sticker on her car. “Heaven knows, we need them down here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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