By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
SENECA, Mo. —
Ask Jerry Myers for details about Christmas 2007 and he’ll draw a blank. Yet he insists it was the best one of his life.
Four days earlier, Myers — a retired U.S. Air Force pilot who flew SR-71 Blackbirds during the Vietnam War — was being wheeled on a gurney into an operating room to receive what he later would call the most wonderful Christmas gift anyone could receive: a heart.
The heart in this case came from 19-year-old Seneca native Caleb Kuhn, who on the morning of Dec. 19, 2007, had been heading home via Kentucky Road, about a mile west of Racine in Newton County.
He was driving a pickup truck owned by his dad, Wes Kuhn, and for some reason crossed the centerline — to avoid a pothole, his mother speculated — then hit the vehicle of an Oklahoma man head-on. The other man died at the scene; Kuhn was flown by helicopter to St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, where he was put on life support and eventually declared brain dead.
“My own heart was functioning at 10 percent,” Myers, now 62, said last week by phone from his living room in Webster, about 30 miles southeast of Houston. “I would walk 15 to 20 feet, from here to the kitchen, and I had to stop and take a break. It was too much.”
Genetics and lifestyle were against him. His father, brother and older sister had had fatal heart attacks. Myers admits he didn’t always treat his body right.
“When you’re young and stupid and bulletproof you do crazy things,” Myers said of his diet and lifestyle. “Sometimes you pay for it later on.”
Myers grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania in the coal mining town of Fairchance — almost 1,000 miles from Seneca.
“I graduated high school there in 1969, and joined the U.S. Air Force the following week,” Myers said.
In Vietnam, he flew the fabled Blackbird — a long-range, high-speed reconnaissance aircraft — and was deployed to “many different places for short periods of time.”
He met and married Jean in 1973, and they would have two sons — Joshua in 1979 and Jacob in 1981.
First heart attack
His first heart attack came on Jan. 20, 1988, while he was stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California. Myers was 37.
Kuhn was born 17 days later in Joplin.
Four years after that first heart attack, Myers retired from the Air Force and moved to Texas to work for NASA. In Seneca, meanwhile, Kuhn attended grade school and developed a love of the outdoors. He became a hunter and fisherman, and raised livestock to show at 4-H and county fairs. He was, his mother said, full of energy and life.
“My heart, meanwhile, continued to get worse,” Myers said of those years.
In 2001, doctors performed a quadruple bypass — a surgery in which arteries or veins from the patient’s body are grafted to the coronary arteries to improve the blood supply to the heart. Myers soon suffered a second heart attack.
“They shocked me on the table nine times, and I figured, it is time to stop all this crazy stuff,” Myers said. “They told me then I would need a heart transplant.”
He was put on the transplant list, and waited.
Kuhn graduated from Seneca High School and started a job at La-Z-Boy in Neosho.
“I opened the bedroom door like I do every morning with my kids, just to peek in at him, before I went to work,” Caleb’s mother, Carmen Kuhn, said last week. She recalls last seeing him the morning of the accident. She was at work delivering mail when she got the call.
“I remember in the hospital praying that if I couldn’t have my Caleb, that God take him,” she said last week from her home in Seneca. “To have lived a life in a vegetative state would have not been my son.”
Of all the decisions to make, she said the easiest was to decide to donate her son’s organs. He was declared dead at 3:05 p.m., but remained on life support while the Midwest Organ Donor Transplant Network began looking for matches.
“We decided as a family — right, wrong or otherwise — that when we left the hospital that evening that we weren’t going back because Caleb wasn’t Caleb anymore,” his mother said.
Matches were quickly found: one for his kidneys, one for his pancreas, another for his liver, still others for his corneas. And, in Texas, someone who needed his heart: Myers.
Good friends who worked at St. John’s continued to check on Kuhn after the family left. A respiratory therapist said a prayer over him before the surgery to remove his vital organs and prepare them for transport to their recipients.
For Myers, the gift of Kuhn’s heart on Dec. 21 meant a new life with family and at church. He will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with Jean next year. He recently helped cook a Thanksgiving dinner that served 329 people, and each week volunteers to work a food truck that hands out meals to the homeless and needy.
“You can’t thank somebody enough for the gifts they give you in a situation like this,” Myers said.
His new birthday
Myers now counts Dec. 21 as his “birthday.”
“This is the best gift I’ve ever received from anybody — anybody on earth, anyway.”
For the Kuhn family, giving the gift of life was comforting.
“What we did made no difference on the outcome of Caleb — Caleb was gone. But to someone else, it made all the difference in the world,” his mother said. “Doing this gave us a sense of one more good thing Caleb could do, and some parents don’t get that opportunity. So we’re lucky in that regard. A piece of Caleb is living on.”
Myers and Carmen Kuhn said they share a strong faith and believe that although they aren’t yet sure of the purpose, everything is part of God’s plan. They have a long-distance friendship via occasional telephone calls and Facebook, and one day plan to meet.
“There’s a connection there,” Carmen Kuhn said. “The timing’s just going to have to be right on both ends.”
“The one thing we just continue to remember at this time of year is something Wes’ grandmother said about Christmas after Caleb died. That we know someone else’s family will be rejoicing — several families will be. There’s comfort in that.”