It happens from time to time, a remarkable moment when you know you’ve met someone who is, for reasons as mysterious as they are profound, truly an extraordinary person, a person you are exceptionally glad to have encountered. I’ve heard countless speakers, lecturers, authors. I’ve been moved by sturdy stories, touched by interesting people, moved by heroic testimonies of lives well lived, but it is still exciting and quite a gift to meet someone who leaves an impression that will last a lifetime. Sometimes it all comes together, and you are struck that you are on holy ground, standing before an individual with character, charm, grace, and a heck of a story. It happened to Beth and me last night.
We were looking forward to selling books at a speaking engagement of an author, Susan Whitman Helfgot, who has written one of the most fantastic books of the season, perhaps of the year, about—get this, and hold on, because this is going to sound weird—the face transplant performed when her husband passed away suddenly. The Match: Complete Strangers, A Miracle Face Transplant, Two Lives Transformed (Simon & Schuster; $26.00) is the story Ms Helfgot tells, and it is amazing, not only for the story of the life-transforming transplant (only the second done in the United States, and one of only a handful done worldwide) but of the truly exceptional ways—coincidental doesn’t even touch it—that lives inter-twined as this dramatic story unfolded. Time and again, similarities and unique relationships emerged for her sick husband, her family, the Viet Nam vet Jim who got the new face, and the Czech surgeon in Boston who led a team of over 30 medical staff in a grueling experimental surgical procedure that was both daring and historic.
The dynamic story of The Match is well worth knowing about, and it is a book we are eager to promote. The author, Sue, whose charisma and kindness enveloped our small crowd here in York so warmly, is perfectly suited to tell this wild and inspiring tale. She was in the thick of it, and is now an experienced and passionate advocate for organ transplants—and for trusting in human goodness. She won us over immediately with this romantic tale, this story of grief redeemed through generosity and courage, and her own earnest telling of each aspect of this multi-layered, epic story.
We were impressed with the author and the book. Beth and I were deeply grateful to spend a bit of time with her, hearing her read from the book and hearing a bit about her grueling schedule promoting it, and the cause of organ transplants, inviting one and all to leave a life-giving legacy by being sure to sign up as a donor. In a quiet moment as she helped us pack up unsold books and paperwork, it became evident what a grueling task this book tour and her advocacy has been. She is, after all, a hero to many and now a celebrity of sorts—appearing on Good Morning America, Dr. Oz and the like—and yet is a grieving widow. We admire her and hope our readers will consider buying her book. All the proceeds go to charity, the foundation Whitman Helfgot has set up called the Joseph H. Helfgot Foundation (which supports face transplant research, and is even working on heart disease in Rwanda.) She also recommends Donate Life America.
Yet, reporting that we met a charming storyteller, telling of a life lost and a dramatic medical procedure that gave new hope to a terribly injured man, simply doesn’t capture the high drama and breathtaking degree of inter-connections and common threads in this high-energy story. Susan told us she didn’t intend to tell the tale—at first, the offering of her husband Joseph’s face was to be anonymous, and organ donation policy is such that recipients do not know who offered the life-saving gift. The story grew larger than she could keep to herself, and all of us in the room as she shared, concluded quickly that this was a story that had to be told. Kudos to Sue and her family and her co-writer William Novak (who has helped some very famous people write some very famous books) for doing the hard work of dozens and dozens of interviews, wading through the over 300 hours of tapes, recreating medical and familial drama, and of digging deep into the painful stories of the principle characters. As she noted in her presentation, off-handedly, but so true: you couldn’t make this kind of stuff up!
First, you may want to know that The Match chronicles the larger-than-life story of her husband, and of Jim Maki, the struggling and tragically injured Viet Nam vet, and of the surgeon, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac of Brighams and Woman’s Hospital in Boston. The stories swerve back and forth through time, in very quick pacing, allowing the narrative to be energetic and interesting. The writing is not what we might call eloquent or literary but it is straight-forward and informative. And thrilling. â€¨â€¨For starters, Sue has come to deeply appreciate the family history of each character. Her own beloved husband, Joseph, courted her after only one meeting, with a pinata full of chocolate-covered fortune cookies, and roses delivered to her workplace as if in some over-the-top romantic comedy (or an episode from Bob Goff’s life, for those that know that merry prankster.) Significantly, he is a survivor of an extended family who was mostly murdered in Hitler’s holocaust. His mother and father escaped from Warsaw and Joseph was raised poor in the Lower East Side of New York. (Soon enough he had two PhDs, was a sex-advice radio broadcaster, a popular sociology professor at Boston U, and, eventually, a significant player in helping Hollywood moguls market their films, working on movies whose names you know.) Happy as his life grew to be, most of his relatives were the victims of fascist genocide.
Interestingly, Jim Maki’s father was adopted from Japan–his mother sold him because they were so poor–and they were (in the same season as Joseph’s parents capture) herded into a Japanese-American prison camp, themselves held against all reason by the U.S. government. (Jim’s heritage includes some Blackfoot Indian blood, too, and the mind reels at the injustices faced by his various ancestors.)â€¨â€¨ And, a decade later, the parents of the surgeon, Bohdan Pomahac, were repressed by the brutal totalitarian communists that squashed the Czech revolt. The elder Pomahac was a great Eastern European scientist, or would have been, but he signed a freedom-loving petition, in favor of the revolution. The Marxists knew this, and he never worked in his field again. Bo, Sue tells us, was inspired by the unfulfilled dreams of his father, and in a story that would make Horatio Alger proud, eventually knocked on doors at Harvard Medical School (“you just don’t do that” Sue insisted, still dumbfounded by his chutzpa.) In time, he became a surgeon in Boston, with interest in plastic reconstructive surgery. Eventually, he met Jim Maki.
Even as the elders of the three principles were all repressed or worse by oppressive powers, Jim himself was becoming a star athlete. He was talented and handsome and ended up in the late 60s in Viet Nam. Like many in his troop, he sniffed the white powder that drew him into a disastrous heroin addiction. In the early 70s there were precious few supports for returning vets and he spiraled downward to an awful life, involved still in drugs and li
ving sometimes in half-way houses, even into the new century. He was married, had a daughter, and was divorced. When he fell onto the third rail of a subway train track, it literally vaporized much of his face. It took ten surgeries and years of hospitalization to keep him alive. He had no mouth, no teeth, of course, no palette, no nose, no nasal cavities, nothing below his eyebrows until bits of what remained of a lower jaw. He could not eat, breath or talk.
Joseph the movie marketer, was hanging with the rich and famous in Hollywood, enjoying his family and his attractive wife. They were good folks, doing good work, active in synagogue and the creative arts community and in educational reforms. He was well loved, energetic. Joseph had a serious heart problem that got worse and worse. A rather complex condition can be summarized bluntly; he was dying, hooked to machines that kept him alive, and he was urgently awaiting a heart transplant. Unbeknownst to him, on another floor of the same hospital was Jim the vet, awaiting a face. Dr. Pomahac knew such a transplant had only been done once in the United States. He thought it could restore life and a level of normalcy to the handicapped and demoralized Jim. There was no reason to think that the two lives would ever cross. â€¨â€¨Interestingly, two summers ago a documentary reality show called Boston Med was tracing a few key patients through Brighams & Woman’s Hospital. They were documenting Joseph Helfgot’s need for a heart, and James Maki’s need for a face. Both suffered as they waited.
As the cameras rolled–with doctors and patient blurred out–Boston Med was filming the heart transplant when Joseph Helfgot died on the table. The stunned Susan immediately agreed to donate the still-thriving heart to yet another patient; Joseph had died of a stroke, even though the heart transplant was successful. Shaken, of course, and exhausted from the ordeal, she was then asked the question that would change the next seasons of her life. Would she allow her husband’s face to be donated to restore a severely disfigured man of similar skull size? It did not take long–she consulted her husband’s Rabbi, and a sister who was a Catholic sister—and she said yes. Only the psychologist who does the organ donation counseling, who was consulting with both Joseph (about his heart) and Jim (about his face) knew them both. Esther, who Sue calls an “angel of God” who “saves people’s lives every day,” became a major part of each family.
Imagine the funeral. Ms Whitman Helfgot wanted the dignity of anonymity and while all her loved ones knew of the heart transplant, no one new that she had allowed Joseph’s face to be surgically removed and used as an organ transplant, given to a complete stranger. Back at her home, after the funeral, the packed house grew interested when, by odd coincidence, a TV news story reported the famous face-transplant that had just been successfully completed. Sue, moved to her bones, bit her tongue, as this report beamed through her home. She thought she would faint. Only Esther and another friend understood.
Within the week the Boston Globe somehow pieced together that it was the famous movie guy who had died during the heart transplant whose face was offered to the messed up vet. They realized that he went from being an organ recipient to being an organ donor within moments. It was quite a story. Within a week, it was on the front page of the paper, and within hours and through the next many days, she had movie rights offers, Inside Edition bugging her, folks camped out day and night, around her home. She called a lawyer friend who said they’d need documentation if any of this harassment went to court, so she should keep a diary. She started to write, reluctantly, and then poured out her heart. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gratefully, she grew to realize that she had quite a story and that it needed to be told. She came to learn of other odd connections, unique relationships that seemed almost divinely arranged. She explored various facets of the backstories, from family legacies to medical researchers. She set out to learn more of the history of transplant surgery, and The Match tells of the hard work done in hospitals and surgical units and research labs. She is a natural lover of science and a good writer, so these portions of the book glow and are woven quite naturally into the narrative of Joseph, Jim, and Dr. Bo.
The story deepens, the relationships are cemented as this historic episode is explored for
deeper meaning, and explained from the very heart of the story. Susan is that heart, a dear soul, deeply committed to honoring her husband’s memory by bringing us into the lives of those he touched, in life and in death.
Beth and I were moved by her candor, her professionalism, and her good grace. And her thoughtful vision of working to bring greater education about organ transplants to both the medical establishment and the wider public. She is a perfect balance (or so it seemed in our brief meeting) of authentic storyteller and savvy crusader.
The Match is not a sentimental book, despite the pathos of the subject. I jokingly asked who will play her in what must surely become a forthcoming Hollywood drama. She bristled just a bit, insisting that she would never allow this to be a sappy Hallmark made-for-TV movie! She is too serious for that, the subject too important, the story too mature. Yet, later, she laughed. Well, maybe if it was made by certain producers who she trusts, artists with integrity and vision. I don’t know what she thinks, really, but I’m sure it would be a blockbuster.
We suggest that this is not only a great human drama, an entertaining read, a good science book, a fascinating bit of oral history, a great holiday gift, but it could be a rather useful educational resource for anyone in the medical field. Family doctors, nurses, plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, counselors, social workers, organ donor specialists (obviously) and anyone who cares about health care could all benefit from The Match, as would those in social work or counseling. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did, hope that you are touched by the way the lives, and even the deaths, of fairly ordinary folks can be restored to some deeper meaning and goodness, experiencing the repercussions for a lifetime of one act of dramatic generosity. This is not what one might call a religious book, yet, as one reviewer exclaimed, it is a book about the sacredness of life. We are grateful for Susan, for the late Joseph Helfgot, for Jim, for Dr. Pomahac, for Esther and the others whose lives were opened up to us all in this insightful story. We thank them, and we wish them all God’s peace.
Here is Susan’s website, which includes the fabulous Good Morning America interview, some good links to places to learn more about organ donation. And some other fascinating links, including one to a press conference where Susan tells her story and Jim Maki speaks.
Here is a fantastic video done by Pittsburgh photojournalist Andrew Rush. Watch it!
A Miracle Face Transplant,
Two Lives Transformed
Susan Whitman Helfgot
Hearts & Minds 2345 East Main Street Dallastown, PA 17313 717-246-3333