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Paramedic reunites with Riverhead man who received heart transplant

10/22/2019 6:00 AM |

In 2016, Ed Schaefer of Riverhead received a life-saving heart transplant that gave him a new lease on life.

The retired Laurel postmaster reflected on his experience at Suffolk County Police Headquarters in Yaphank Monday, where he was reunited with Erin Carey, the Stony Brook paramedic who assisted him on his journey from Riverhead to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. to receive his new heart.

“[Ms. Carey] was doing her job but for me, she was saving my life,” he said as he presented her with a plaque.

To receive the new heart, Mr. Schaefer needed to get to Westchester Medical Center. When his doctors called — around 5 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2016 — overwhelming joy and some degree of panic set in as he and his wife, Deborah, prepared for the trip.

“There was no way we were going to get to Westchester Medical Center in two hours [during] rush hour,” he said.

A friend had reached out to the Suffolk County Police Department Aviation Unit, who responded swiftly with a medevac to transport Mr. Schaefer from Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“I’m not a typical patient that’s lying down flat on a stretcher,” he said, though he had wires coming out of his Left Ventricular Assist Device meant to help circulate blood and an extra battery pack at his side. It was a first-ever helicopter ride for Mr. Schaefer, who remembers the surreal feeling of flying over the Long Island Sound and circling the hospital to land.

Mr. Schaefer, 67, described how Ms. Carey helped him into a wheelchair and into the hospital, remaining with him until a bed was ready even though she had a young son waiting for her at home.

“She didn’t have to do that,” he said. “What she did — and does for other patients — means so much.”

Ms. Carey, a Wading River resident, has worked as a paramedic at Stony Brook University Hospital since 2011. She remembers answering the call for Mr. Schaefer vividly because President Barack Obama was in Manhattan that day.

“There were restrictions on flying,” she said. “The pilot had to coordinate flying through the secure area.”

Transporting Mr. Schaefer, she said, was unusual.

“Most of the time, you meet people and it’s not a good day for them, it’s usually not a good situation,” she said. “For Ed, it was the opposite. He’s probably my favorite call because he had such a happy ending.”

While the two have remained in contact through social media, they reconnected in person for the first time Monday.

Ed Schaefer and Erin Carey at Monday’s event. (Credit: Tara Smith)

In the three years since his successful operation, Mr. Schaefer says he’s gained so much more than a heart. He’s become an advocate for organ donation, inspiring many to join the national registry and has met his donor’s family, who he now considers to be his own.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas of 2016, Mr. Schaefer sent a letter to his donor’s family.

“I knew it was the greatest gift that somebody could give,” he said. “Most people don’t hear back from or even meet their donor’s family, but three months later, I got a five-page letter from my donor’s family. I got through the first half page and I was bawling like a baby.”

He learned his donor was 32 years old, had a young daughter and his family was willing to meet at a heart transplant recipient event hosted by Westchester Medical Center.

“In a second, I knew that we were going to be family. My donor’s mom came over and wanted to hear her son’s heartbeat. She put her head on my chest and listened,” Mr. Schaefer said.

“The box of tissues in that room was emptied very quickly that day.”

Mr. Schaefer did not name his donor but said that they keep in touch with his family by attending birthday parties, building sandcastles at the beach, or attending church together.

During the event Monday, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart also recognized members of the department’s highway patrol unit for their role in an organ transplant in June.

According to Ms. Hart, Lt. Peter Reilly received a call from LiveOnNY. Their vehicle was not available and they needed to get a viable liver from Stony Brook University Hospital to Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan.

“As with any organ transplant, time was of the essence,” Ms. Hart said.

Officer Steven Turner was dispatched to transport the organ and the department coordinated an effort to make Nassau County and NYPD officers aware that Mr. Turner would be driving into Manhattan using lights and sirens to ensure the organ got to the hospital in time.

She commended the officers and Ms. Carey for making a difference in strangers’ lives.

“Our members do work every day that is above and beyond the call of duty,” she said.

Both officers were recognized with plaques and medals from LiveOnNY, a nonprofit organization that promotes organ and tissue donation.

Speaking about the importance of registering as an organ donor, Mr. Schaefer directs one task to each person who hears his story.

“Everybody go home tonight and talk to your family. If you’re an organ donor, let your family know. If you’re not, discuss it,” he said.

According to LiveOnNY, New York ranks last in the nation in percent of residents registered as organ donors.

There are approximately 9,571 people waiting for a transplant in New York and 112,956 people on the national waiting list for organs.

“We lose a New Yorker every 18 hours who dies in a hospital because an organ wasn’t available for them,” Helen Irving, president and CEO of LiveOnNY, said at Monday’s press conference.

“There’s a donor family on the other side of the equation, someone who lost a loved one. But we’re very grateful for that gift,” Ms. Irving said. “Our goal and our mission is to save lives, create legacies and provide comfort through organ donation. We want to make sure that nobody dies waiting for a life-saving transplant.”

For more information or to register as an organ donor, visit donatelife.ny.gov.

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