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Santa Rosa couple's love persists throughout health scares

Mary and Don Coover at their home in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 4:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 8:16 a.m.

It was 26 years ago that first-grade teacher Mary Coover gave her heart to a man who had no inkling that his life would come to depend on receiving so much more from her.

Shaking his head and smiling, Santa Rosa native Don Coover mused, "If Mary had known what she was getting into when she met me, she might have said, 'I'm out of here!'"

The woman he'd first encountered on a blind-date dinner at the Flamingo Hotel saw him through the rigors of a heart transplant -- then a second one. And after that, the arduous process of him coming back from a shriveled, near-death state of 103 pounds and learning anew to speak and perform even the simplest tasks.

On top of all that, Mary Coover underwent surgery to give her husband one of her kidneys.

"It was nothing," she said. Then she made clear she wasn't joking.

Now 64 and retired from Steele Lane Elementary, Mary said that supporting the man she loves through the ordeal of nearly back-to-back heart transplants was an honor, and that donating a kidney to him was no big deal.

"Honestly, it was the easiest surgery," she said.

She and Don, who's 68 and part owner of Petaluma's Kresky Signs, have written and self-published a book they hope will provide encouragement to people in need of an organ transplant and will prompt others to sign up as potential donors.

The format of "I Left My Heart at Stanford. . ." alternates a chapter of recollections and reflections from Don with a chapter written by Mary.

Both of them recount the moment at Stanford Hospital in April 2006 when Mary leaned to his ear as he was being wheeled into an operating room for one of what turned out to be only the first of his heart transplants.

She whispered to him, "Think sex."

Born in 1944 at Santa Rosa's former Tanner Hospital at Fifth and King streets, Don Coover discovered early on that there was something a bit different about him.

His skin was extraordinarily stretchy. He wrote in the first chapter of the book, "I could pull my skin several inches away from my body, especially at the joints, knees, elbows, neck and underside of the arms. Kids would call me Stretch."

He learned from his mother that the condition had been passed among some members of their family for about six generations, that he had to be quite careful because his skin would easily cut, tear or bruise.

For the most part, though, the oddity was simply that. Don, who graduated from Santa Rosa High School in 1962, swam competitively and became a heck of a skier.

But a scary incident late in 1990 revealed that what he sometimes calls his "chicken skin" was an indication of serious trouble. He had been bothered by discomfort in his chest when he suddenly slipped into a trance -- while driving on Santa Rosa's steep Fountain Grove Parkway.

Mary, who'd been seated next to him that day 22 years ago, wrote in their book that the car veered to the left. "I screamed, 'Don,' because his head was leaning against the window and I thought he had passed out."

Don regained his wits and a short while later was on an emergency-room examination bed at Memorial Hospital. Tests discovered that his heart was enlarged and a valve was leaking because of the same condition that caused his stretchy skin.

It was then, at age 46, that Don first heard the term Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

It's a disorder marked by deficient collagen, the protein that allows the skin, internal organs and other tissues to hold their shape. He was born with the disorder, and doctors told him that because of it he most likely would one day need a heart transplant.

To protect his heart, Don began taking medications and consuming little salt and no alcohol. In 2003, a defibrillator was implanted in his chest. The following year, surgery repaired the leaky valve.

Late in April of 2006, Don collapsed at home. His cardiologist at Stanford examined him and put his name on the heart-transplant list.

Though patients can wait for months or years for an organ, a high-priority spot on the list and the sudden availability of a suitable heart sent Don into a surgery room just one day after he went on the list.

When his wife at last received word of how the surgery went, the news wasn't good. "They put the heart in, they sewed it up, and it never started pumping," she said.

Don was placed on life support. Without a functioning heart, he relied on a roomful of machines to keep him alive.

Remarkably, another heart became available only five days later. Don went into his second heart-transplant surgery at Stanford as Mary sweated bullets.

She recalled in the book that a doctor, not the lead surgeon, told her, "You know, he has only a 10 percent chance of making it through this surgery."

But Don did. He emerged from the trauma of back-to-back heart transplant surgeries in miserable shape, though, and was kept in an induced coma for six weeks.

One of many serious consequences of the ordeal was that his kidneys shut down, forcing him to go onto regular dialysis.

Don said that once he emerged from the coma, "I had to relearn to talk, to move my limbs, even to swallow." He finally was sent home in October of 2006, nearly six months after the two surgeries.

Coover gained weight and grew stronger, but found that the necessity of going to a dialysis clinic three times a week to mechanically remove waste and excess water from his blood was taking a huge toll on him and Mary.

"It was no life for me, living that way, and it was no life for her," he said.

At the point, it appeared that he could endure another transplant surgery, his wife took the tests to determine if she was a suitable candidate as a kidney donor. She was.

The kidney transplant surgery happened at Stanford on Aug. 1, 2007.

"They took it out of her in the morning and it was in my by mid-afternoon," Don said.

Mary said that earlier in her life she'd had two caesarian-section deliveries and a burst appendix, and by comparison this was a piece of cake.

"This was the easiest of all my surgeries," she said. "There was nothing to it."

Today, the donor and the recipient are enjoying life and talking up their book, for sale on Amazon and at the Copperfield's Books in Montgomery Village.

Don sees several doctors several times a year and tells of being aware every day that he's a very lucky man. Along with two hearts and a kidney, he said, "I've been given a second life."

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