Peggy Morris: Gift of a Lifetime

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2016 18:07

For heart transplant recipient Peggy Morris, practice laps at Bret Harte Aquatic Center in Angels Camp paid off at the 2016 Transplant Games of America.

When she climbed the poolside podium in June, Murphys resident Peggy Morris had a mysterious but not-at-all-silent partner.

Beating strong and steady in the 68-year-old swimmer’s chest for the four minutes it took her to win a gold medal in the 200-yard freestyle was a transplanted heart.

That heart also helped Morris’s Northern California team win the women’s all-age division 200-yard medley relay (backstroke) at the 2016 Transplant Games of America in Cleveland.

It then powered her to silver in two more swims (50 freestyle and 50 backstroke) and through a few rounds of bocce ball and volleyball – all alongside teammates and competitors with transplanted kidneys, livers, lungs, corneas, marrow and more.

“It was the toughest, most joyful thing I’ve ever done,” says Morris.

But what’s the mystery?

To this day the ever-grateful Morris has no idea who donated the heart that has been a near-perfect match for her. Rather than fighting the new organ, her body embraced it and Morris grew stronger by the month.

But was her donor a man or woman? Young or old? A husband? Wife? Father or mother?

“I just don’t know,” she admits. “I’ve written thank-you letters to my donor’s family, but so far I’ve heard nothing.”

Staying anonymous is a prerogative for donors and their survivors, but Peggy Morris is sure about one thing: That person’s decision to be an organ donor saved her life.

And today she is not shy about delivering the message to all her friends and neighbors: Be a donor, save a life.

In late 2013, Morris’s transplant ended a months-long nightmare. And it helped change her from someone who couldn’t walk more than a few steps without gasping for air into a medal-winning senior athlete with a new appreciation for life.

“At the end, just before the operation, I was in bed all the time,” remembers Morris, who just a year earlier had been an active hiker, cyclist and swimmer. “When the doctors told me I needed a heart transplant, I was shaken. But I had no choice. Being able to stay up only six hours a day was really no life.”

Not only that, but her life expectancy without a new heart was limited.

“The doctors never told me how long I’d last without one,” says Morris. “But given how fast I was declining, I’d have been lucky to make it two years.”

Completed at Stanford University Hospital on Nov. 16, 2013, the three-and-a-half-hour transplant surgery was a resounding success.

“There were no transfusions, no problems,” Morris says. “The doctors were almost giddy.”

But the 17 months leading up to that operation brought nothing but growing concern and worry to Peggy and husband Ron, San Carlos High School sweethearts who went on to marry, have two sons and forge successful careers in the Bay Area.

Winning athletes surround Peggy at the Transplant Games

She had been an administrator for biotech firms; he a wine industry consultant. The money was good but the pressure and pace were brutal.

“The crowds, the traffic, the stress – it was all too much,” says Peggy. “And Ron had a heart attack in 1984 and quadruple bypass surgery in 2002. We needed to get away.”

But the Morrises took a while to escape. “Raising kids, seeing them through school and being part of our community all kept us there,” she explains. “But we were seeking a way out for quite some time.”

At the suggestion of one of Peggy’s bosses who lived there, the Morrises narrowed their search to Murphys and fell in love with it. They bought property off Pennsylvania Gulch Road in 2001, built a home and moved up in 2003.

Deadlines, decisions and commutes gave way to growing wine grapes and peppers on their new Mother Lode homestead. Ron ran the tasting room at Lavender Ridge Winery. Peggy wove baskets, sold spices and olive oil, worked as a barista and was a dean’s assistant at Columbia College. They hiked, cycled and got to know dozens of new and friendly Calaveras County neighbors.

Life in the Mother Lode’s slow lane agreed with them until 2012, when Peggy’s heart took an unwanted detour into a slow lane of its own.

That detour came while she and Ron were driving to the Bay Area to celebrate son Casey’s 30th birthday.

“Afterwards, I was really, really tired,” remembers Peggy. “I thought it might be the flu, so I took a nap. But when I got up later to take a walk, I just couldn’t keep up. A month earlier I had ridden my bike all over San Francisco, and I was just fine. This time it was weird – I never recovered.”

After returning home she went to Angels Camp Medical Clinic. “Looks like you have an enlarged heart,” said a doctor, scanning an X-ray and recommending an EKG.

She scheduled an appointment, but first came a June teeth cleaning at her dentist’s office in Sonora. “I was out of breath when I walked in, and the hygienist was alarmed,” remembers Morris. “She said I should go to the ER right away, but I told her I wanted my teeth cleaned first.”

Her teeth gleamed when she began driving to Mark Twain Medical Center’s emergency room in San Andreas. “I can’t breathe,” she thought to herself, gasping behind the wheel. “This is ridiculous.”

In fact, it was dead serious. After a battery of tests at the ER, she was hospitalized for two days. Her diagnosis: idiopathic cardiomyopathy. Translation: Her heart was so weak it was pumping only a trickle of blood to her lungs. Her pulse and blood pressure had dropped to dangerous levels. The cause? “No one knows,” says Morris, who ate well, exercised and had a heart that pumped just fine for 64 years before fading.

Her family does have a history of heart disease, she says, “but it was mostly blocked arteries and high blood pressure – nothing like I had.”

Next, Peggy’s friend Robin Modlin took her to see Ron’s Palo Alto cardiologist, Dr. Bruce Benedict. He outlined the options: medication, a pacemaker, and if all else failed, “you might need a heart transplant.”

“It was the first time I heard that,” recounts Morris. “Afterwards I fell into Robin’s arms, sobbing.”

“It’ll all be good,” comforted Modlin, whose 35-year-old daughter Anna, a cystic fibrosis patient, is thriving after a double-lung transplant.

On hearing Dr. Benedict’s news, Ron was overwhelmed. “It was the not knowing, the uncertainty of the situation,” he says. “But then I realized that Peggy is the one going through it all.”

Ron understood. Although he had a family history of heart problems, his own were also deemed idiopathic – “arising spontaneously and without apparent cause.” Although he has been in excellent health since the bypass, he understands matters of the heart in more ways than one.

“I absolutely could relate to what Peggy was going through,” Ron says. “I knew I had to be there for her.”

“When it comes down to it, Ron saved my life,” says Peggy. “He was caring and paying attention through it all.”

Ron was there for her when her medication and pacemaker fell short, her heart and energy slipped further and she was spending 18 hours a day in bed.

He was there when Peggy underwent a battery of tests to qualify her for a transplant, when she made the list and when she learned she might have to wait up to two years for a new heart.

That wait was not easy: The Morrises’ once-idyllic life in Murphys was now fraught with concern. Would her new heart arrive before the old one gave out? Would her dreams of happily growing old in the foothills come to an end?

When the phone rang in the early evening of Nov. 15, 2013, the wait ended. “Are you ready for your new heart?” asked a Stanford transplant coordinator.

Although Peggy had only been on the waiting list for eight weeks, she and Ron were more than ready. A friend drove them to the Stanford ER, where their son Kevin and his wife, who live in San Francisco, met them at 11 p.m.

“I wasn’t anxious,” remembers Peggy, whose only previous operation was a tonsillectomy. “I was excited. I was ready. I knew a transplant was my only chance of living a normal life.”

By 1 a.m. she was in the operating room and her new heart, which until just minutes earlier had been inside a patient on life support, was on its way.

Stanford surgeon Philip Oyer and his team completed the complex operation in three-and-a-half hours – well within the window of time within which heart transplants must be completed.

Although the surgery was an unqualified success, its benefits took longer to arrive. “I didn’t notice any change at first,” Peggy recalls. “I was too tired, too sick and too drugged up.”

And that stranger’s heart beating in her chest? “It felt like it was supposed to be there,” remembers Morris. “It felt, well, happy.”

Morris with medals won after lifesaving transplant

Her new heart, however, did beat faster than her old one, clipping along at about 100 beats per minute – about normal for a transplant.

The procedure turned Peggy into a million-dollar woman, but virtually all of the surgery’s more than $1 million bill was covered by Medicare and insurance. Her anti-rejection drugs, which she will need to take for the rest of her life, began at $9,000 a month and now run about $2,000.

She was discharged from the hospital 10 days later, but kept on a short medical leash.

“I had to be within 10 minutes of Stanford for three months, and went in for twice-a-week appointments at first,” says Morris, who stayed with her 91-year-old mother, Ina, in Sunnyvale, then with her sister, Ruth, in Redwood City.

“At the beginning I was sleeping a lot, then I began to need less and less rest.”

Within two weeks Morris started walking up and down the block in front of Ruth’s house, then worked her way up to a mile. She returned to Murphys in February 2014, and continued exercising and building strength while making monthly visits to Stanford.

Then came another phone call that changed her life. It was from her friend Robin, whose daughter Anna had just won a stack of medals at the 2014 Donate Life Transplant Games of America in Houston.

“Peggy, you have to join us for the ’16 games,” urged Robin. “It’s so much fun!”

Although the Cleveland games were still two years away, Morris marked the June 10-15 dates on her calendar, and in late 2015 began training in earnest. “I started swimming in my 30s – back then I could do a mile,” she says. “I figured I’d build up to that again.”

So she hit the Bret Harte High pool, working out up to five days a week beginning in the February chill. “In two months I could swim a mile,” she says. “It took about an hour, about the time I was doing 35 years ago.”

Then she took lessons from Lauren Gerber, the pool’s aquatics director, refining her stroke. “If I didn’t win, at least I’d look good trying,” Morris laughs.

Although she had never competed even in grade-school sports, Peggy was a star at the 2016 Donate Life Transplant Games, which brought 3,000 organ-recipient and donor-athletes together to compete in 20 sports, ranging from swimming, cycling and track to beanbag toss and Texas Hold-’em poker.

A member of the Northern California team, Morris was the oldest female swimmer at the games. Yet she won four medals in the pool, including one for the 200 medley relay – where her three teammates, including 34-year-old Anna Modlin, were each more than 20 years her junior.

“I couldn’t let those young girls down,” laughs Morris, whose four-member team had together received four lungs, a kidney and a heart.

“The energy, the adrenaline was crazy, and it stayed with me for all five days,” says Morris, who was joined by son Kevin at the event. “Never in my life have I experienced a high like that.”

The games were much more than athletics. Beyond sport, noted The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the games “were part family reunion, part celebration of life and part call to action.”

“The camaraderie was amazing,” Morris agrees. “Everyone had stories, everyone had family there and the importance of being a donor came through loud and clear.”

She let her own donor’s survivors know she was competing in Cleveland to honor the man or woman who gave her the heart that now beats in her own chest.

Peggy and husband Ron at home in Murphys

Morris wrote the family once more on Nov. 15, the third anniversary of her life-saving transplant. And she may thank them yet again after the 2018 Transplant Games, whose host city has not yet been chosen.

“Then I’d be in the 70-and-over age group, which didn’t have any women in 2016,” she grins. “If no one else joins, I’d bring home all the medals.”

Future gold notwithstanding, Morris never loses sight of what’s important.

“Seeing the sun come over the hills every morning, watching it set in the west every night and living every day in between,” she says. “I’ll never again take that for granted.”

Then there are her sons and her sister, who were by her side at Stanford and helped her through recovery. And at opposite ends of the family spectrum, her mother, still thriving at 94, and her 18-month-old grandson, Teemu, whom she may never have met if not for the transplant.

And there’s Ron.

“We’ve helped each other get through so much,” says Peggy, already counting down to the couple’s 50th anniversary in 2018. “Only we can understand what it took to survive it all. It’s been trying, but uplifting. And we’ve come out closer than ever.”

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2016 18:07
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1 Comment

  1. Pati April 2, 21:43

    Peggy, your positive attitude, faith and determination have helped you get where are today. Your zest for life and your love and compassion for others would give such joy to your Donor Family. So happy for your friendship and can’t wait to share new adventures in 2018!

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