OC man meets heart transplant donor's wife


Two decades ago, he needed a heart transplant and got one. Tuesday, he finally got a once in a lifetime chance to meet his donor's family.

When heart transplant recipients and donors meet for the first time it can be emotional.

For Debbie Atkinson it was a chance to hear her late husband's heart beating once again.

"I never thought I would hear that again," said Atkinson in tears.

Newport Beach resident Dennis Harwood received the transplant 22 years ago. Without it, doctors say he would have died.

The donor Dusty Atkinson was a seemingly healthy 32-year-old man who died suddenly of a brain aneurism.

Doctors at Hoag Hospital Orange County say it was one of their most successful surgeries to date.

The average survival rate of a heart transplant is 10 years.

Mr. Harwood has not only surpassed that but according to his cardiologist Dr. Douglas Zusman, he also does not suffer from any of the transplant's side effects.

"To have someone over 20 to 22 years and still have the same heart implies one thing, it was a good match. It was a perfect match from a genetic standpoint," said Dr. Zusman.

Thanks to Atkinson's heart, 74-year-old Harwood has been able to live a full life and see the birth of 8 of his grandchildren.

Debbie says it's a sign her husband had a heart of steel.

"His heart wanted to continue on. I think that's it," said Atkinson. "He wasn't ready to give up."

Harwood, a retired Newport Beach lawyer, says he never dreamed the heart in him belonged to a tough, Harley Davidson loving biker.

"I suppose you conjure up an image of somebody playing racquetball, that's the image you have of the donor," said Harwood. "Obviously, Dusty's image was a little different than that but that doesn't change the fact of the gift he gave."

The Atkinson family says this experience shows them just how powerful being a donor can be.

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