By the time John Morelli had been at Massachusetts General Hospital for several weeks this winter, waiting for a transplant of both his heart and liver, the Braintree native had put the upcoming surgery in the back of his mind, concentrating instead on who was visiting each day and whether the weather was mild enough for a walk outside.
Then on Friday, March 23, around midday, Morelli was lying in bed, not watching TV, just waiting to get up and sit outside in the sun for a half hour. Dr. Kimberly Parks, a cardiologist leading a team of medical professionals assigned to Morelli's case, walked into his room.
"She said: 'I don't think you're going to go for your walk today, we have a match,'" Morelli recalled in a recent interview at his home on Elm Street, where he has returned after more than six weeks of in-patient recovery from a rare double transplant surgery.
That moment was bittersweet, Morelli said, because he thought of the person who had to lose their life to provide the organs, and he considered the daunting task ahead – what would become an 18-hour surgery followed by five unconscious days, his heart beating with an artificial pump, and then weeks of re-learning to eat, stand, walk and even write again.
"It was very difficult for him" being in the hospital, waiting for the organs and unable to be as supportive a father as he wished, Dr. Parks said in a recent interview. “When he got the organs, there is nothing more uplifting than hearing that news.”
Over the past two decades, Morelli has experienced frightening medical problems and also the joys of growing a family, excelling in business and learning to understand the importance of appreciating life's small pleasures and supporting those in need.
In 1995, when Morelli was 29 years old and had just started dating his wife Stacey, doctors discovered a mass in his heart. It was benign, but needed to be removed. He had open heart surgery and was married, 14 months later. Morelli transitioned from working in the concrete industry to becoming a senior manager for a pharmaceutical company, and he and Stacey raised three boys – Griffin, Tyler and Joshua – in East Braintree.
Then, about five years ago, Morelli's heart began to fail again, damaging his liver. By last fall, to wait for a donor, and support from friends, family and neighbors quickly began pouring in.
A group created Friends of John Morelli that held a fundraiser in November, raising money to help the family while Stacey is not working and Morelli is collecting only disability. Others in the community prepared meals, created a schedule to give rides to practices and games for the Morelli boys and purchased vouchers for the family to use when visiting the hospital.
"People came out of the woodwork and we are absolutely blown away by the support we received," Stacey said.
During Morelli's first weeks in the hospital last fall, he began to plan, along with an eventual family trip to the Bahamas, a non-profit organization that will raise money to help those going through organ donation pay for hotels, meals and other expenses.
The Transplant Foundation of New England has a business plan, will soon have a website and also a board of directors. Twelve-year-old Griffin has expressed interested in helping the foundation, and even went through the plan and gave his father notes.
Stacey said her family met and became close with several other families while at the hospital – "You become part of a private club you never want to be in" – and realized that not everyone has as extensive a support system as they do. The family of one fellow patient from New Hampshire, for instance, was spending a lot of money staying in a hotel and paying for meals.
One of the most important ways to help in these situations, she added, is by providing outlets for children, such as museum or movie tickets. "Kids can't work in that pressure cooker," Stacey said. "They need to step outside."
Following about two weeks in intensive care, upset that he was unable to walk around, and even feed himself, Morelli transferred to a step-down unit where he began physical therapy. Then he had a stint at Spaulding Rehabilitation in Cambridge, where he was able to leave early after pushing himself extra hard, Morelli said.
"It's incredible how well John is doing," Dr. Parks said, adding that Morelli's biggest concern is rejection of the organs, but that he is taking medicine to guard against that and some transplant patients she has treated have gone on to run marathons.
Morelli returned home on Wednesday, May 9, greeting Griffin first when he came home from school at . Griffin walked in, saw his dad in the kitchen and "his face just melted," Stacey said. "He cried and wouldn't let me go," Morelli said.
Tyler and Joshua came home later, the family ate dinner together at the table for the first time in a long time, and they went to Griffin's baseball game at . That night, the five of them sat in bed and watched Survivor.
"People, myself included, take that stuff for granted," Morelli said.
Before the surgery, their focus was on getting through the day. "You have tunnel vision," Stacey said.
Afterward, "we can plan," she said. "We can go on a vacation. We have a life now."
"A second chance," Morelli said.