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75-year-old golfer going strong on 21 years with a second heart

George Cooper, 75, uses his putter to get onto the No. 17 green at Meadow Oaks Golf Course in Hudson on Tuesday. Cooper received a heart transplant nearly 21 years ago and plays golf five times a week. His medication leaves him vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, so Cooper wears half sleeves and a big bucket hat to protect his skin while he’s on the course.

George Cooper, 75, uses his putter to get onto the No. 17 green at Meadow Oaks Golf Course in Hudson on Tuesday. Cooper received a heart transplant nearly 21 years ago and plays golf five times a week. His medication leaves him vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, so Cooper wears half sleeves and a big bucket hat to protect his skin while he’s on the course.

HUDSON

George Cooper wanted to die.

It was March 28, 1987, and as Cooper lay on a bed at Tampa General Hospital, only 15 percent of his heart worked — and only with the intermittent shocks from a defibrillator.

"I remember that night — I was dying," said Cooper, then 55. "They kept shocking me. They really were keeping me alive. I remember they shocked me one time, and I said, 'Don't do that again. Just let me die.' "

Cooper had waited two years on a heart transplant list, looking to get a new one to replace his enlarged heart. And just as he had given up hope, a new life began.

Dr. R. Vijay, Tampa General's leading heart surgeon at the time, put in his replacement.

"I sure thought I was going to die that night. I would've, too, if I hadn't gotten the heart," Cooper said. "I feel very lucky. Someone has to be watching over me, and then this might be a second chance. It feels like I hit the lottery, I think."

Cooper, now 75, is still spending the winnings of that jackpot.

He's alive and well, playing golf five times a week with about a 16 handicap.

"He's the same ol' George," said Brian Quinnell, an occasional golf partner Cooper has known since he was 16. "The same ol' man I've known forever. He's never changed, and I know he never will."

Cooper's second heart earned him the opportunity to become a grandfather and even a great-grandfather.

But after his wife, Nancy, died in 1994, Cooper started playing golf more regularly than about once a month.

They had been married 47 years, mostly in Ohio where Cooper worked for the Teamsters union, but had moved to Florida in 1980 when his heart starting failing, and to, as he put it, "wait to die."

"Back when I first got the heart, it was rumored that I would make it another three or five years," said Cooper, who still must take a dozen pills a day to prevent rejection of the organ.

Dr. Mark Weston, Cooper's cardiologist since he got the heart, said recipients have a 65 percent chance of living 10 or 11 years after the transplant.

Weston added that golf has been good for Cooper, and that he's done remarkably well over the years.

"Golf is perfect for him because it's not going to be stressful to his heart, not going to be stressful to his body," Weston said. "The only concern we have is all the sun exposure he gets and that his medication leaves him a little more vulnerable to the UV and skin cancer."

Cooper wears half sleeves on his arms and a big bucket hat to help protect his skin while he's on the course.

Cooper has bagged four holes-in-one and two double eagles since his transplant. His buddy Quinnell isn't surprised.

"Maybe he should be dead already, but he's still here,'' Quinnell said. "Still going strong.

"He's a fighter, and he doesn't sugarcoat anything. He's straight up."

Cooper must be especially careful to avoid germs and infections, and he has had more than 50 surgical procedures.

But he rarely misses a chance to hit the links.

A highlight of his golfing career came in 1996, when he participated in the United States Transplant Games in Salt Lake City.

Weston finds it remarkable that Cooper has done so well.

"He's very lucky he's lived this long," Weston said. "He's done very well. & Sometimes, very infrequently, you'll have some patients who have psychological issues, having problems adjusting to the fact that they have someone else's organ, and then someone probably had to die for them to get that.

"It takes some soul searching sometimes, but George is very well adjusted to it."

Perhaps Cooper hasn't changed. He admits he still feels the same, even with a new heart.

Though Cooper feels blessed that his life was extended a great deal.

"I just think of it as my own heart," he said as he completed another round at the Meadow Oaks Golf Course. "It feels like it's been mine all of my life. I've never felt different with it in me, but I guess that's how it's supposed to be, because I'm still here."

Mike Camunas can be reached
at mcamunas@sptimes.com
or (352) 544-9480.

.FAST FACTS

Heart transplants

George Cooper's heart transplant was the 21st at Tampa General. Since then, TGH, the hospital that performed the first heart transplant in the state of Florida in 1985, has performed more than 800 heart transplants. Dr. Mark Weston says there are some major complications a patient can deal with after the surgery:

• Heart transplant recipients are more susceptible to infections.

• The body can just as easily reject the heart. Rejection usually happens within the first six months after the surgery, as the patient is trying to get used to the rejection drugs, but even this varies from patient to patient.

• There is also what Dr. Weston calls the Achilles' heel of heart transplant surgery: coronary vasculopathy, or blockage in the heart arteries.

75-year-old golfer going strong on 21 years with a second heart 03/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 8:10am]
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