Change Of Heart

His future as a tour pro is unclear, but Erik Compton, twice the recipient of cardiac transplants, has plenty to live for

Erik Compton

At home in Miami Beach, Compton is savoring life.

September 5, 2008

Two days after Padraig Harrington parked the claret jug back in his garage, a golf pro was giving a morning lesson to a lawyer with a 20-handicap on a shady corner of the driving range at the most public of public courses. Taking off into the muggy, July wind off Miami Beach, planes seemed to buzz the end of the practice ground built so close to a major airport you could almost hear the boarding announcements while the range balls knuckled through the air, either because of a bad weight shift and a poor grip or maybe because the wobble was original factory equipment, installed the same time the red stripe was painted on. The only remarkable thing about the scene, outside of the fact that the teacher was dressed in baggy shorts and running shoes and looked more like a skateboarder than a golf pro, was that slightly more than two months before, this particular golf pro was lying on a table without a heart in his chest.

Erik Compton couldn't help himself. He could only give advice for so long before he had to hit a couple of drives, too. He didn't go at them hard that day, the impact making a cheap, annoying clank, the shots flying a mere 250 yards or so instead of the surprising 300-plus his 5-foot-8, 155-pound body was once capable of producing. In the macabre humor common to practice tees, particularly the scruffy ones, a friend and mentor of Compton's cautions him not to swing too hard lest his chest pop open and they have to pick his liver up off the ground. It's hard to catch a break on a practice tee, even if you're a walking miracle.

Plenty has changed since Oct. 3, 2007, when Compton suffered a near-fatal heart attack while fishing. A victim of cardiomyopathy (a disease affecting the heart muscle), Compton received his first transplanted heart at age 12. The median duration for a transplanted heart is 11 years. Compton's lasted 16. It is the painful reality of transplantation that every life-saving act is preceded by tragedy. Compton's first donor was a 15-year-old girl named Jannine (Ed. note: last names are withheld) who enjoyed hanging out in the garage with her older brother, Brian, listening to his rock band practice—no doubt badly. Riding in a Hyundai with her mother and her divorced mother's boyfriend on their way to rent a movie at Blockbuster, they were struck from behind by a drunken driver in a Buick, sending their car careening into a Mercedes. Mother and daughter both died. "A light switch turned off and all of a sudden my life was kind of different," says Jannine's brother, who was 20 at the time and had no other living siblings. "Things kind of went south for me, financially-wise. After the accident, it was kind of weird. I had a mortgage." Instead of going to college, he went to work.

On Feb. 26, 1992, prepped for surgery and lying on a gurney in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, 12-year-old Erik heard the helicopter delivering his new heart, his new life. After the passage of time, he wrote letters to Jannine's grandmother, Janet, who has since died. "I was really glad that she kept in touch with him," says Brian of his grandmother. "It really helped her to deal with everything that happened. Just to know that something good came out of something totally unchangeable, unpreventable, for us."

Erik and Barbara

Wife Barbara's due date has special meaning.

While heart transplantation is statistically an enormously successful therapy, failures occur for three primary reasons: acute rejection, infections and a condition called chronic vasculopathy, a progressive disease of the coronary arteries. Think of the latter as a kind of slow, inexorable, closing of the arteries and eventual failure of the heart. That Compton's first transplant lasted 16 years before succumbing to it is easily at the upper range of expectations.

Not knowing how serious the heart attack was when it commenced last October, Compton drove himself to the same hospital where his transplant was performed, running a toll booth on the Dolphin Expressway, for which he received a moving violation in the mail the following week. In the car he anxiously made a series of cell-phone calls to family and friends, both to alert the hospital that he was on his way and to say goodbye. By the time he reached the emergency room, he was coughing up blood and needed assistance walking. "I'm looking straight at my dad [Peter], and they have to close the curtains. He walked into this chaos going on. He didn't know it was going to be that big of a situation," recalls Compton. "[The doctors] have to do their work. It might have been the last time I ever see him. It's like my dad, looking at him, wasn't even that frantic. Just sort of like he expected, eventually, that that day would come, you know? It was weird."

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