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Sharp Health News

Racing to get a new heart

Feb. 14, 2019

Heart transplant story drag racer

Heart transplant recipient Jack Jones with Sharp nurse Kristi Ortiz, R.N., lead nurse practitioner of the heart transplant center.

You can say that Jack Jones has lived life like a daredevil. Jones, a 78-year-old East County resident, is regarded as a legendary Top Gas drag racer with an impressive list of visits to the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) winner’s circle.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Jones attended college in Los Angeles, before he moved to San Diego for a job in the aerospace industry. While in his youth, he was introduced to drag racing and was quickly hooked. After a successful career in racing, with championship wins in both the U.S. Nationals and the World Finals, he had his likeness immortalized in the NHRA’s national-event winner’s trophy, “The Wally.”

Help for a failing heart
After retiring from racing, he started a business in San Diego. Not long into his retirement, Jones was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. After 28 years, several surgeries and an implanted defibrillator, Jones was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He was told by his Sharp-affiliated cardiologist, Dr. Bill Mann, that since he did not want to have a mechanical circulatory support device, he would benefit from receiving a new heart.

That’s when he was introduced to Kristi Ortiz, R.N., lead nurse practitioner of the heart transplant center at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

A shared connection to organ donation
The date was July 13, several years back, when Ortiz received a very difficult phone call. She learned that her uncle – her mother’s brother – had experienced a traumatic brain injury and wasn’t expected to survive. She called her supervisors at Sharp Memorial to let them know that she would be taking that day off to care for her grieving family, which had decided to donate her uncle’s organs.

A few hours later, Ortiz received a call from one of the surgeons at the heart transplant center, wanting to make sure she was OK with where her uncle’s heart was going – to a patient of hers who was next on the patient registry list.

“I told the surgeon I would not step in the middle of fate and that my uncle would be happy that his heart went to a Sharp patient,” said Ortiz.

Two days later, Jones received his new heart.

Jack’s heartwarming news
“I didn’t know anything about where the heart came from,” Jones says. “But in hindsight, when I was recovering from surgery, there was a hint that mine was a little different from the others.

“Before surgery, I remember asking Kristi the age of the previous owner of my new heart. She said, ‘Would it matter if they were 15 or 55?’ I said, ‘No, no matter at all.’ I later found out the man was 55, he had a good heart and it matched perfectly to what I needed. Kristi told me she would be out for a few days, and of course, I didn’t put two and two together. After the fact, it made perfect sense.”

Three months later, during a follow-up appointment, Jones and his wife, Lorrie, were to learn where his heart had come from. When Ortiz said the appointment might get emotional, they didn’t realize the magnitude of that statement.

Kristi held out a picture of the donor and remarked about how similar he and Jones looked. Jones remembers thinking how the picture of the man looked more like him than his own brother. Then Kristi told him the news: that the man in the picture, and Jones’ donor, was her uncle.

“You can imagine things got pretty emotional from there,” Jones says.

Since then, Jones has met Ortiz’s grandmother – the mother of her uncle – whom he calls his heart mother, the uncle’s son, and Kristi’s mom and sister – his two heart sisters. He calls Kristi his heart niece and says in addition to his new lease on life, he has a new sense of “family”— his heart family.

Visit Sharp's transplant services or lifesharing.org for information about organ and tissue donation, or to register to be an organ donor.

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