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Heart transplant gives Poulsbo's Melvin Sperber a new lease on life

Poulsbo’s Melvin Sperber wants to give thanks for — and encourage – organ donation.  - Brad Camp/Staff photo
Poulsbo’s Melvin Sperber wants to give thanks for — and encourage – organ donation.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff photo

POULSBO — At 65, Melvin Sperber is truly young at heart.

He’s only had his, after all, for about five years.

A recipient of a donated organ transplant, Sperber, of Poulsbo, says now is the time of year he likes to give thanks to those who’ve registered as donors — and encourage others to do the same.

A long road

It wasn’t so long ago that Sperber spent his holiday season in the hospital. After a massive heart attack in 1984 — “I wasn’t even supposed to live,” he describes — he retired from a 22-year Navy career and began work as a contractor, enjoying three subsequent years of good health.

After another series of heart attacks, however, Sperber underwent a quintuple bypass. Seven years later, he suffered cardiac arrest. With an implantable defibrillator, he was able to retain some mobility, but not much.

“I was getting so I couldn’t even climb one step,” he said.

In and out of the hospital, Sperber was to the point he couldn’t sit at his desk to work, let alone travel for business.

“At first, I didn’t want a transplant,” he said, but after some convincing from his family, Sperber put his name in the hat, so to speak, joining thousands nationwide waiting for an organ.

While waiting, Sperber was admitted to the hospital.

“They told me I was probably never going to leave again.”

But four months after signing up to receive a donation, word came.

It was a Saturday morning.

“A nurse woke me up,” he explained. “I’ll never forget that. She says, ‘we have a heart for you,’”

That night, the heart, flown from Northern California, was implanted in Sperber at the University of Washington Medical Center. One month and one “emotional experience” later, Sperber, who was 60 at the time of the surgery, was back home; nine months later he was back to work.

“It’s just marvelous”

Since his January 2004 operation, Sperber has taken up walking four miles daily. He’s just about reached his five-year milestone.

“They say if you make it five years you’re good,” he said, smiling.

Now, he’s helping to educate others on the cause through the LifeCenter Northwest donor network, the organ and tissue program that services Washington, Montana, Alaska and North Idaho. According to its Web site — www.lcnw.org — LifeCenter Northwest facilitated 148 organ donors in 2007, saving the lives of 475 people. One donor can save or enhance the lives of more than 50 people.

According to donatelifetoday.com, the number of people registered to donate is not keeping pace with the number of those needing a transplant. Every 13 minutes another person is added to the national organ transplant waiting list. Nearly 100,000 people in the United States are currently waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, including almost 1,500 in the Northwest. Eighteen people die each day waiting for a transplant, according to the site.

According to donatelife.net, only 35 percent of licensed drivers and ID card holders have committed themselves to donation by registering to be donors through their state registry or motor vehicle department.

“You think of all the wonders that organ donation can do,” said Sperber, whose brother died at age 46 of a heart attack. “It’s just marvelous.”

That’s why he makes himself available to speak at schools and inform as many as possible. It’s important, he said, for people to know there is a way to turn tragedy into hope.

“It’s my way of giving back.”

For more information, or to register to be a donor, visit www.lcnw.org.

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