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A Change Of Heart: John Weakley’s Transplant Story

The hospital where John Weakley stayed at prior to his surgery. He later volunteered 13,000 hours there and was hired as a greeter in 2006. Photo by Rachel Bolton.

As he lay in his hospital bed, John Weakley knew he needed a miracle to survive. He had been in the Coronary Care Unit at Faxton Saint Luke’s Hospital in Utica for nearly a month, and as he grew weaker hope was running thin.
“I was up in the CCU unit,” Weakley said. “I was so sick that when people came to visit me, I’d ask them to leave because I was afraid I was going to die.”

Before being admitted to Saint Luke’s for congestive heart failure, Weakley had suffered two heart attacks, in 1984 and 1988. One was so massive his heart stopped for more than 20 seconds. But, in the third instance, Weakley’s heart could not take any more stress.

He traveled to Buffalo for an evaluation with doctors and was told that he would be added to the transplant waiting list.

“They gave me a beeper and sent me home,” Weakley said. “I was only home a few days and I’d give the beeper to my wife because I was in the hospital more than I was home.”

Sitting in the CCU of Saint Luke’s, Weakley said he lost more than 40 pounds, as his weight plummeted from 190 to below 150. Sleeping and eating were difficult.

“You’re very anxious,” Weakley said. “You’re waiting for the phone to ring. You’re waiting for someone to be killed in an accident.”

His wife, who still stands by him today, continued to offer her support, even though her husband’s life was not in his own hands.

“It was hard for her,” Weakley said. “I don’t think she ever really realized how sick I was leading up to my transplant.”

The letter and poem written to John Weakley by the heart donor's family. It's been nearly ten years since they wrote back.

But, on August 9th, Weakley received the call he was hoping for. A heart had become available, after a 19 year-old died from injuries he had suffered. He was declared brain-dead, but before doctors took him off life support, the family consented to donate the young man’s organs.

Weakley’s life was saved.

On August 10th, Weakley received his new heart and after fifteen days of rehabilitation, he would leave the hospital and embark on a new life.

“I felt better almost instantly, once they put that new heart in my body,” he said. “I’d go back for biopsies, and the only way they can tell if my body is rejecting the heart is they have to do a biopsy of the new heart. And so, I had about 20, 22 or 23 biopsies.”

Weakley never had any rejection from his new heart, and now today, 20 years later, he is celebrating his new life.

Since 1992, he has volunteered more than 13,000 hours of his time at Saint Luke’s, and says it’s his own way of giving back to the doctors and nurses that gave him so much.

“I don’t know how many times they saved my life when I was so close to dying,” he said.  “Every day is very special and when people walk through that front door, I want to treat them exactly as I’d want to be treated.”

Weakley’s countless acts of kindness eventually paid off. In 2006, FSLH hired him as a greeter. For six years, he has taken some of the worry off patients and their families, offering comfort and giving visitors confidence in the doctors around them.

But, Weakley hasn’t stopped at just volunteering. For five years, he hosted the “Walk of Life” at Proctor Park, raising awareness for organ donation.

He also began working with the Center for Donation and Transplant in Albany, and in 2011 was asked if he would be one of 28 people to ride on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade.

“The Rose Bowl Parade… that was incredible,” he said. “You talk about living the dream; I mean that was a dream come true. I watched the Rose Bowl Parade before and I knew we had a float in there, you know, for the past five or six years, and I’d always look for the float. But I’d never in my life ever dreamed that I’d be on it.”

His wife, how was by his side during his most trying moments, was also by his side that day, cheering him on.

“The first thing I thought was ‘they are going to send me to California and my wife can’t go with me,’ and I said it just wouldn’t seem that wonderful if my wife wasn’t with me because I know she’d want to enjoy it, too.”

Weakley says his life has been forever changed, but none of it would have been possible if it weren’t for his family and the doctors at FSLH.

John Weakley poses with his latest letter to the donor's family, commemorating 20 years with his donated heart. Gino Geruntino, WIBX

“I love my extended family here at the hospital,” he said. “I see my doctors and my nurses almost every day, the people I work with, and they’re just so friendly. It’s a great place to work.”

However, the main goal following the ordeal has not been lost of Weakley, who still focuses many of his efforts on getting people to talk with their families and donate their organs to save lives.

“The biggest message is to share your decision with your family,” he said. “You know, whoever is listening to this interview right now, think about talking to your family about what would you want done with your body if something did happen to you. Would you want it buried or would you want to give life to maybe six or seven other people?”

John Weakley opens up to pose for a photo with his latest letter to the donor’s family, marking his 20 year anniversary with the new heart. He has written a letter to them every few years since his transplant. Though he has only heard from the donor family once, their letter was heartfelt, as they talked about their beautiful boy and his early departure from a life full of love and friendship.

His name was Stephen.

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