Bahai News - Journey of the heart May 21, 2000

Journey of the heart
Second chances

Doug Clark - Staff writer

Spokane _ Spokane's Joseph Urlacher drove more than 400 miles to attend today's high school graduation of a small-town Montana girl he has never met.

But there is a bond between Urlacher and Colleen Bauer that is as heartfelt as the love of a father and a daughter.

Two years ago, Urlacher's life was saved when he received the transplanted heart of Colleen's cowboy dad. Casey Dean, 41, died in April 1998 after suffering a head injury while tending calves on an Augusta, Mont., ranch.

After writing Urlacher for months, Colleen recently mailed him a request for a special favor.

Would he come to Clyde Park? Would he join the crowd in the Shields Valley High School gym and watch her graduate?

"My dad was my hero," says Colleen. "His heart was the biggest part of him, he would just light up a room. He was so loving and that part of my dad is still living in him."

Urlacher, 44, couldn't say yes fast enough.

Because of Casey "I have a new lease on life," he says. "I still think it's a miracle that his heart is beating in me."

If you tried to construct a profile of a man headed for heart transplant, this elementary school teacher wouldn't make the list. A devout member of the Baha'i faith, Urlacher doesn't smoke or drink. He doesn't do drugs. He never had heart trouble. He wasn't obese.

The virus that destroyed his heart didn't care.

Urlacher came down with flulike symptoms on Thanksgiving Day 1994.

Doctors at first thought he had pneumonia. Eventually the bad news emerged. Urlacher began a slow slide downward that no drugs or therapy could reverse.

Halloween 1997. That was his last day of teaching.

Feb. 19, 1998. "That was the day I died," says Urlacher, whose frail heart stopped during a stay at Sacred Heart Medical Center. The monitor connected to him, he says, went flatline for more than a minute.

When Urlacher came back to the living, he found himself hooked to two heart pumps. He and his wife, Marsha, prayed that a match for a transplant would come through in time.

Nobody knows for sure how Casey Dean died. He was found lying on the ground with his faithful horse, Ally, standing nearby. A rope was still looped around the neck of a calf.

He could have fallen off Ally while roping the animal, but Colleen doesn't think so. Her dad was an expert rodeo rider. He was a respected wrangler on the Broken O Ranch who had lived most of his life on a horse.

She believes he might have been unexpectedly kicked or butted while he was off his horse and tending to the calf.

Casey was given a cowboy's send-off. More than 50 horses carrying family and friends followed the mule-drawn hay wagon that bore his coffin.

Some 400 miles away in Spokane, Casey's heart was already giving Urlacher a second chance. On April 18, 1998, Dr. Timothy Icenogle performed the transplant at Sacred Heart.

National radio personality Paul Harvey caught wind of the cowboy's last ride. He devoted a segment to the funeral, noting that Casey was an organ donor and that somewhere his heart was still beating in somebody.

"I'm that somebody," says Urlacher, who completed this year's Bloomsday in honor of "organ donation, Casey and the glory of God."

Today in Clyde Park (population 500), that special heart returns to a daughter. Colleen is pretty special herself. She is her school's student body president and a champion discus thrower and shot-putter. She graduates with 18 members of her senior class.

To Urlacher, being able to fulfill the girl's wish underscores the need for organs. Every year, 40,000 patients nationally need new hearts, yet only 2,500 hearts are available.

Many die waiting.

"If you can give that gift of life to someone as your final act," says Urlacher, "well, I know God will smile on that and bless it."

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.


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