?The medication eats away at his spine.
He strains to stand up straight. He scuttles across the floor with the help of an aluminum walker. He can’t play golf anymore, can’t stand for more than five minutes. Each day, he takes 20 anti-rejection pills, some with dangerous levels of toxicity.
But his heart, his glorious heart, is still beating. He is 74 now, enjoying grandchildren, rooting for the UC Irvine basketball team, watching football and golf on television.
Twenty years after a heart transplant, as the rest of his body betrays him, what is going on inside Dennis Harwood’s chest becomes more amazing by the day.
Harwood has defied statistics that say five to 10 years is the upper range of life expectancy for heart transplant patients. Thirty-three of the 34 people who had heart transplants in 1992, through the work of renowned cardiac specialists Aidan Raney and Douglas Zusman at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, are dead. Only Harwood carries on.
How strong is Harwood’s heart? A normal heart’s “ejection fraction” (the volume of blood pumped with each beat) is between 55 percent and 70 percent. As he neared death in 1992, Harwood’s ejection fraction was 16 percent – leaving him two options: sudden death or a heart transplant. Today, Harwood’s ejection fraction is 71 percent.
When he dies, his doctors agree, it won’t be from a heart ailment. He’s got incredible horsepower inside his chest.
For 20 years, Harwood, who was a high-powered Newport Beach lawyer specializing in multimillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions, didn’t talk about the transplant. He lived with a sense of guilt. “Someone,” he said, “had to die for me to be here.”
Someone with a big, badass heart.
Privacy laws dictated that Harwood would know little about his donor. He was told his heart came from a 32-year-old man who dropped dead of a brain aneurysm on the racquetball court (a detail that is not close to being true), leaving behind a wife and two young sons. Harwood mailed a letter of thanks shortly after the surgery, but the family of the donor declined to receive it.
It wasn’t until late October, more than 20 years after the transplant, that the family of the donor agreed to speak for the first time about the anti-hero biker whose decision to donate his organs was the greatest thing he ever did.
For 20 years, Harwood didn’t know about the guy with “Freebird” tattooed on his chest. He didn’t know about the Harley or the sliver of metal that pierced his eye. He didn’t know about the girl in Wabash or the love letters. He didn’t know about the Dobermans or the dead cousin in Montana. He didn’t know about the beer, the brawls or the buckskin chaps.
He didn’t know about Dusty.
LOVE AND GRIT
They worked at Rosie’s, an Italian restaurant in Wabash, Ind. She washed dishes. He delivered pizzas. It was 1978.
“He gave me butterflies,” said Debbie Atkinson, recalling her first summer with the man who would quickly become her husband.
He was Vance “Dusty” Atkinson, given the nickname because, as a child, he churned up so much dust when he played baseball. He was a tough-guy biker with fringe on his chaps and a Marlboro bobbing and weaving between his lips. Dusty fits on the American cultural landscape somewhere between “Easy Rider” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
They were both 18 (Debbie was pregnant) when they were married on Aug. 19, 1978. He wore jeans and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel. His wavy blond hair hung to the middle of his back. They left the church parking lot with “Just Married” streamers rippling from his Suzuki 500. Debbie got “Property of Dusty” tattooed on her left shoulder.
Debbie had two boys – Nick and Robert – but these were really tough times for the Atkinsons. Dusty couldn’t find a job. So he joined the Army and was stationed for three years in Germany. Debbie talks openly about how their marriage split apart. Dusty found a girl in Europe, and Debbie was dating while Dusty was gone.
Debbie moved her boys to Fullerton in 1983. Eventually, Dusty came back to his family. He became as domesticated as a hard-drinking, pool-playing, ponytailed biker could become.
“I was always embarrassed because of his long hair,” said his son Nick. “He didn’t have the look of a normal dad.”
They moved to Orange on Ramona Street, where the Atkinsons found a house featuring a garage that had been converted into a bar. It was Dusty’s “man cave” before the term existed. It had wood paneling, a pool table, a dartboard and a stereo system where he could play what we now call classic rock like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”
If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me? … ‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now. And this bird you cannot change.
Dusty gave his toddler son a Doberman pinscher named Robert’s First Harley and cruised around Orange County on a real Harley, complete with stretched-out forks in the front, sissy bar in the back. He had 13 tattoos on his body, including a skeleton riding a Harley, and the words “Freebird” and “Grouch.” He landed a job as a machinist with Pamarco in La Palma.
For Dusty, life was perfect.
He swigged Miller Lite and loved the Lakers. He hung out in bars too often and got into too many fights. Once, he tried to pick up some extra cash working as a security guard at a VFW hall. He got cut trying to break up a knife fight.
“You didn’t want to mess with him,” said Nick, who now lives just outside Phoenix. “But it was cool when he rolled up on his bike at school.”
Debbie said Dusty’s drinking and brawling was fueled by his belief that he was going to die before he was 35.
He told Debbie he didn’t want some creepy funeral with his embalmed body being viewed by crying relatives – unless he could be embalmed with beer (Debbie checked; funeral directors don’t allow it). When a distant cousin died in a car accident in Montana, Dusty heard that all his organs had been donated. He thought that was a classy move. He told Debbie to donate his organs when he died.
In 1992, it looked as if Dusty’s life had turned a corner. He was promoted to manager at Pamarco. He reluctantly cut his ponytail. He cut back his drinking. He was closer to his wife and sons than he had ever been.
He was on a training trip in New Jersey when he heard the Bryan Adams song “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” He called Debbie and told her to listen to it.
You can’t tell me it’s not worth dyin’ for. You know it’s true. Everything I do, I do it for you.
Those lyrics, he said, were the words he always meant to say to her.
As he had done many times when he was away or after a fight, Dusty wrote Debbie a card to explain what life would be like without her: “I’d feel like there was nothing alive inside of me, except for a broken heart.”
In the summer of 1992, Dusty got a sliver of metal from the Pamarco machine shop stuck in his eye. He started getting severe headaches. He would lock himself in the dark bathroom and close his eyes for 45 minutes at a time. A doctor wanted to do surgery to remove the metal, but Dusty didn’t want anybody messing with his eyes.
The tough guy would rather live with the pain.
He wasn’t wearing a helmet when he flipped his Harley on I-405 in the spring of 1992. Somehow, Dusty hit the pavement without smashing his head. He suffered a couple of broken ribs, but he was more upset that his bike was totaled.
On Aug. 10, 1992, Dusty was angry with Nick, who had just turned 13. Dusty sent Nick to bed early. Nick told him, “I wish you were dead.”
Those were words Nick, who is now 33 and lives with his wife and two sons just outside Phoenix, has regretted every day since.
Dusty Atkinson suffered a brain aneurysm in his bedroom with his wife around 11 p.m. If you had to rank how you wanted to leave this earth, what Dusty was doing when his brain exploded would likely be near the top of the list.
“He was not playing racquetball,” Debbie said, smiling through her tears.
Dusty had little brain activity. He was in a coma. His body was having repeated uncontrollable spasms. His family kept Nick at home, trying to protect him from seeing Dusty in that condition. But the 13-year-old was able to flee his house and ran a couple of miles to Kaiser Permanente in Anaheim Hills to say goodbye to his father.
“He was being kept alive on machines,” Nick said tearfully. “That’s not the type of person he was.”
Debbie waited four days before agreeing to turn off those machines. She agreed to donate his heart, kidneys and liver – and those organs went to recipients all over Southern California.
Despite his barely beating heart, then-53-year-old Dennis Harwood was not only able to play golf, but he was able to play golf really well. On Aug. 14, 1992, he was leading the Mesa Verde Invitational. He was walking toward the first tee, ready to start the second day of the tournament.
His pager beeped.
Harwood knew what that meant. A heart had become available, and he had a five-minute window to decide if he wanted the transplant.
Calmly, Harwood stepped up to his golf ball and stroked a 250-yard shot straight down the middle. He then found a pay phone and called to accept the heart donation. He drove himself to the hospital without telling anyone involved in the golf tournament that he was leaving.
When Drs. Raney and Zusman saw Harwood that evening at Hoag Hospital, he was wearing a golf sweater and slacks – the picture of health. Harwood looked so healthy, in fact, that the doctors had a quick meeting to evaluate whether he truly needed a transplant. Usually, they see patients when they are gasping for life.
Harwood’s heart was so bad, “He would have been a guy who dropped dead on the golf course. He was definitely in line for a sudden-death event,” Raney said. So they decided to go ahead with the transplant.
Carol Harwood, his wife, received an update every hour through the night. When she wasn’t thinking about her husband, she was thinking about the unknown man who donated the heart.
“It was an opportunity to pray for that person,” Carol said.
Raney and Zusman, who have now worked together for 27 years and know each other, according to Zusman, “even better than our wives,” said the transplant happened without a hitch.
Two days after the transplant, Carol entered her husband’s room and found him with a dictation recorder and paperwork on his bed. With Dusty’s heart beating inside him, he was back to being a lawyer.
That’s how Harwood has handled the transplant. He immersed himself in the law, took his meds faithfully and, until his back gave out, spent a lot of time on the golf course. He became the president of the Southern California Golf Association. He’s a regular at the Big Canyon Country Club. He likes “smooth jazz and Frank Sinatra.”
He didn’t talk about the transplant until he was asked in August to speak at Hoag at a dinner honoring Raney and Zusman for 25 years of cardiac work. Harwood retired from his law practice in 2011.
“If you sit around and become fatalistic,” he said, “if you think of yourself as defying gravity … you’ll go crazy.”
He’s a rabid UCI basketball fan, goes to church and watches football on Sundays.
The best part about his “additional life,” he said, is the fact that since his transplant, he’s welcomed seven new grandchildren into his family.
Today, Dennis Harwood’s heart is 52 years old, a year younger than Harwood was when it was transplanted.
A MAN REMEMBERED
At her home in Prescott Valley, Ariz., Debbie Atkinson has a dusty plastic bin full of Dusty. She pulls out a black leather beret and his black chaps with dangling fringe.
She hugs a folded American flag that was presented to her by the honor guard at Dusty’s memorial service.
Dusty’s ashes sit in a heavy oak box in the living room, beside pink paper roses and beneath a portrait of a soaring eagle. She has a leather sleeve filled with Dusty’s foot-long ponytail. She strokes the hair with her thumb as she is being interviewed.
Debbie never remarried. She lives with four energetic little dogs.
Until late October, she didn’t know Dusty’s heart was still beating.
“I’m glad he was able to have a life, that his grandkids and friends got to spend more time with him,” she said of Harwood.
And if she ever came face to face with Dennis Harwood?
“I’d want to hear that heart beat,” she said. “I’d ask him does his heart skip a beat when he hears a Harley roll by?”
Dennis Harwood has never been on a motorcycle.
Nick, who, like Harwood, attended Newport Harbor High, just passed the age his father was when he died. “I know my father loved me, but we clashed,” Nick said tearfully.
Nick has the wedding ring that Dusty wore around his neck, “So it could be close to his heart,” Nick said.
When his mother dies, Nick said he and his brother have agreed to mix his mother’s and father’s ashes, rent Harleys and scatter the ashes in the wind on a mountain road.
Nick has three sons. The youngest is a 6-year-old named Dustin Vance Atkinson. He plays baseball and kicks up a lot of dirt when he runs the bases.
Recently, Nick started calling him “Dusty.”
To view the original Orange County Register article, click here.