'A parent's worst nightmare' turns into miracle of life: 32 years later, heart transplant recipient reunites with donor's parents
FARGO — The heart of deceased Michael McCann has traveled around the world.
After tragically losing their infant son, Michael, in 1986, Karen and Steve McCann of Fargo decided to help their grieving process by donating Michael's organs, hoping they could help someone in need.
On Saturday, the airplane that carried Michael McCann's heart from Fargo to San Francisco, Calif., was the "celebrity" at the Fargo Air Museum's 10th annual celebrity dinner and auction. The McCanns and Andrew De La Pena, who survives on Michael's heart, were all in attendance.
On Friday night, the three of them spent time with each other at Rhombus Guys in downtown Fargo.
"It's wonderful. I never would have dreamed that we'd be at this point, having beer and pizza," Karen said.
Andrew met the McCanns in 2007 at a similar Fargo Air Museum event.
Michael passed away unexpectedly on Dec. 22, 1986. He had stopped breathing 20 days earlier at his babysitter's home.
Karen called it "A parent's worst nightmare."
The McCanns decided to turn that nightmare into something good by donating their son's organs.
Stephen De La Pena and Deborah McCarthy, who lived in San Francisco, Calif., experienced a similar tragedy in the prior year.
Their daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed with a rare and often fatal heart defect, endocardial fibroelastosis. EFE is characterized by a thickened inner lining of the heart. Sarah was only 6 months old when her life ended in May 1985.
The following July, De La Pena and McCarthy welcomed Andrew. He was seemingly healthy at birth.
Two weeks after Andrew was born, he began breathing fast. Sarah exhibited the same symptom prior to her diagnosis and death. Andrew was rushed to Oakland Children's Hospital, where he was diagnosed with EFE.
For infants, heart transplants were rare at the time, and the logistics added to the complexity of the situation.
One team of surgeons in Fargo would recover Michael's heart. Another team at Stanford University Medical Center would prepare Andrew for surgery to receive the heart. The ideal time span between organ recovery and transplantation was no more than four hours. However, given the distance between Fargo and Stanford, it could take five hours.
At 11:45 p.m. December 23, Michael's heart was recovered for transplant. A problem arose at Hector International Airport, where one of the engines on the jet slated to transport the heart would not start.
Gov. George Sinner called Maj. Gen. Alexander P. Macdonald and inquired about the ability of an F-4 fighter at the Fargo base to be used for the emergency mission.
Within 30 minutes, the aircraft was released and flight planning began. At 3:06 a.m., Lt. Robert Becklund took off with the red and white cooler containing Michael's heart.
At 6:43 a.m., Lt. Becklund landed at Moffett Naval Air Station at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay, handing off his precious cargo to a team from Stanford.
The McCanns didn't find out until later what happened that night.
"We didn't actually know a lot of the details until later," Karen said. "We were home grieving and didn't even know all of that was going on behind the scenes."
'Do you know that you're dying?'
Before his first birthday, Andrew had a heart transplant. Before his sixth birthday, he had gone through two stints of cancer.
After his successful heart transplant, Andrew had to take an immunosuppressant to prevent his body from attacking the new organ. The medical team at Stanford was unsure of how big of a dosage to give to him. Andrew was given too much.
A weakened immune system caused Andrew to get the Epstein-Barr virus, which then caused lymphoma at the age of 2.
Andrew's cancer went into remission, but returned when he was 4, but he was cancer-free by age 5 1/2.
"I was in pretty bad shape though," Andrew said. "Because their whole strategy was to give me enough chemotherapy to kill an adult. ... They gave me enough to basically kill a horse. And because young people are slightly more resilient, I was able to survive that."
Andrew recalled a back-and-forth with his mother while he was in the hospital. She asked him, 'Do you know that you're dying?" and if he understood what it meant. He said, "Yeah. That means no more me."
"That gives you a different perspective than most 5 or 6 year olds," Andrew said.
He said he wanted to embrace the more sophisticated things in life. He wanted to learn music and read to try connecting with authors who had the same questions he did.
Andrew joined a boys choir, which provided him the opportunity to travel to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
'I want to settle down'
Andrew's early travels led to more exploration. He got a theater degree from Loyola University of New Orleans, and a Master of Science in international studies from the University of Amsterdam. While he was at school in Amsterdam, he met his wife.
Andrew said he's been to almost every continent. He's taught English in Thailand, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Hawaii.
"Our son's been on quite an adventure, his heart has," Steve McCann said.
Andrew said he's scratched his traveling itch.
"I want to settle down. ... I've lived in East Asia and South America and in the Middle East and Europe," Andrew said. "I've been to something like 40 countries, and at some point it's like every big city is kind of the same. ... So I'm ready to kind of settle down and work on my own creative craft, whether it's writing or theater."
Andrew said he wants to live in the United States, adding that Fargo is a possible destination.
"I'm a huge fan of Fargo. I can't say enough how great this place is. I've never been here in the winter, that might change my mind," he said with a laugh. "The people and the spirit here and the kindness is special."