(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
By the time Eddie Fisher’s hit, “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” made the charts in 1955, Mary and her daughter were way ahead of him in affairs of the heart. Two years earlier her daughter, Merle, had been part of an experimental open-heart surgery program at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.
One day when Mary had Paul at the Harrisonburg Health Center’s Orthopedic Clinic for his monthly visit, the doctor surprised her with a question. “Have you heard about the Rheumatic Heart Clinic that’s coming here soon?”
“Uh, yes, I saw something about it in the News-Record.”
“The reason I mention it is because I know your daughter has a heart murmur. There has been a lot of heart research going on over the last few years. One outcome is a procedure that might offer a cure for Merle’s condition.”
Mary was puzzled. “I didn’t think there was a cure for this.”
“Well, a doctor in Philadelphia developed a machine that has enabled advances in the heart surgery that look promising. I really think you should bring Merle to the clinic and check into this.”
That was all the encouragement Mary needed. She arranged for Sis to have a consultation. When the clinic was in session, Sis underwent an examination that was followed by a family conference.
“We’re excited to tell you that we think Merle would be a great candidate for this surgery. We’re looking for a group of twenty-seven children to participate from across the state. We think the risks involved are small compared to the possible results. If you are interested in having your daughter considered, we can arrange for an exploratory test in Richmond that will tell you for certain if she qualifies.”
Mary was excited, but cautious. She and Hugh conferred. “What will this cost? I’m not sure we could afford it.”
“Relax…as we said, this is exploratory, and we have a federal grant that will pay for everything except the routine hospital charges.”
Mary and Hugh looked at each other, trying to take this in. It was an incredible opportunity!
The doctor smiled. “I know that leaves some expenses for you to shoulder, but this is something most people could never afford without the grant. I hope you will do this…it would mean so much for Merle’s quality of life now, and for her future.”
Sis was an eighth-grader at Montevideo High School. She had spent all thirteen years of her life restricted from so many activities that Mary knew she could hardly grasp what it would mean to be “normal.” In talking with her, Mary knew she had some fears, but she also saw the glint of hope in her eyes. When Sis said she wanted to do it, Mary was excited. It would be done in February, and during the intervening weeks the family shared their hopes and expectations. Mary wanted to be sure Hughie, Paul and Jimmy understood what was going on. They all got excited about it with her.
The day before the operation Mary and Hugh took Sis to Richmond where they met with the surgical team. She had arranged for Hughie to be out of school for several days so he could be at home taking care of Paul and Jimmy. He had done this on numerous brief occasions, so they believed he could handle it.
After Sis was settled in her room, Mary and Hugh joined the staff for further consultation where they went over details again, and answered questions.
“This procedure uses a heart-lung machine that was developed by a doctor in Philadelphia. What we will do is detach Merle’s heart from its supportive network, transferring to the machine the tasks of oxygenation and pumping blood through her body. This will free us to mend the congenital hole in her heart, then we will transfer all support functions back to the heart. After a brief recovery period, she should get back to her normal life rather quickly.”
Mary felt elated. All of this was actually happening. She had been praying for weeks and thanked God for where they were. She knew the outcome was in his hands.
“How long will all of this take?” she asked.
“It is a long procedure. Her surgery is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning at seven o’clock. It should take twelve hours, perhaps even a little longer. There’s a family area on the sixteenth floor where you can wait. We’ll keep you abreast of things as we go along. Since we’re a teaching hospital, and this is a federal grant program dealing with a new procedure, we will have a number of people observing.”
“Observing? What do you mean…how does that work?”
“Uh, think of it as something like the opening of a Broadway play. Lot’s of staff people will be the “audience.” They will be in the balcony looking down on the operating suite. They can watch and learn from each step we take.”
Wow! Mary thought. This is unbelievable.
The next morning surgery went forward right on schedule. Mary and Hugh found the waiting area to be comfortable enough. There was a receptionist available at a desk. The room had couches, chairs, tables, reading materials and other things to help people who were anxiously waiting for loved ones in surgery to pass their time. Windows looked out across the city, and there was even a patio where people could step outside.
They got acquainted with others waiting in the room. Talking together helped each person endure the “unknown” about the ordeal someone they cared about was experiencing down in the OR. Periodically they received word that everything was progressing well. Mary closed her eyes numerous times and felt the presence of God. “We had guardian angels all around us,” she would later say in describing the experience.
Fourteen hours after surgery began, they received the word; “Surgery was successful. Patient doing well.” Sis went to recovery and later to her room. She had a private nurse with her for the first twenty-four hours, courtesy of a gift from Beta Sigma Phi. This was the business women’s sorority Mary had belonged to in Cincinnati. She had kept in touch with several members whose generosity funded the nurse.
Within a few days Merle was home and back to school. Her heart was healed–it was whole. Her life expectancy had been greatly increased. Mary was elated and gave thanks to God. A couple of years later she would hear Eddie Fisher’s song on the radio, and a thought would cross her mind, Yes, you’ve gotta have heart–and you are blessed if it’s whole.
As always, reality stepped in. Sis’s heart was healed, but Mary still had major challenges in raising Paul, whose CP condition would always call forth from her the very best in hope, faith and courage. For this task, too, Eddie Fisher’s song title applied…“You’ve Gotta Have Heart.”
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)