Easter signifies a rebirth in both a religious and secular sense. Heart transplant recipient Percy Baker Jr. of Peoria gets to celebrate two birthdays this year: Feb. 24 and March 26. The latter is the day Baker was born 58 years ago. The former is the day his new life started.
Easter signifies a rebirth in both a religious and secular sense. For Christians this holy day marks the moment when followers of Jesus discovered that their savior had risen from the dead. Non-Christians may see it as the unofficial start of spring.
It is in that vein — a rebirth — that central Illinoisans can appreciate the story of Percy Baker Jr., the now-retired director of Peoria's George Washington Carver Community Center. This year, Baker says, he gets to celebrate two birthdays: Feb. 24 and March 26.
The latter is the day Baker was born 58 years ago. The former is the day his new life started.
Baker got the call he'd been anticipating on a Sunday afternoon. He'd gone to church services, fixed some dinner, settled in to watch some basketball. At 3:15 p.m. the phone rang. Doctors told him he had four hours to get to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, or he'd lose the opportunity to receive a heart.
Baker's old heart — good and kind though many say it was — had been ailing. Systolic failure brought on by the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis meant it wasn't pumping enough blood. A transplant was his best, if not only, hope.
"I was the walking dead when I had to quit work," said Baker, who reluctantly stepped down from his longtime Carver post last November. The decision to leave the not-for-profit center he served for 32 years was one of the hardest he'd ever made. Still, he'd been quietly sick for a decade. It was time.
So, too, was it time on that February afternoon. Trusted friend Roma Lemon rushed over to drive Baker to Barnes. That night, the Peorian had what some 3,000 other Americans are currently awaiting: a donated heart. Young. Strong. A gift from a stranger, a man more than 30 years his junior.
A month later, a still-hospitalized Baker said, "I'm blessed. I feel great. I'm up and walking. The only thing that is an issue now is that I have some fluid in my legs and feet. My heart is functioning properly; they've got a pacemaker in for backup."
This is welcome news, as Baker's recovery hasn't been problem-free. In fact the donor's heart was too big; he said doctors had to trim it down. Baker spent days in intensive care after going into renal failure. Medication kept him alive. Then the socket for his pacemaker became inflamed. He was swollen, bleeding, in pain. At times he could hardly breathe.
Still, long before the transplant he'd resolved that even if he didn't make it, such was God's will.
The fact that he is making it — he was expecting to be home today — has Baker celebrating a revived sense of purpose: "I can't help but reflect on the goodness of God. ... Obviously, He still has some work for me to do."
Indeed, in recounting his story Baker cites the Gospel of John (9:1-41) and how Jesus opens a blind beggar's eyes. It begins:
As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.
And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?"
Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
In a similar though admittedly much more humble way, Percy Baker Jr. sees a chance for that Bible passage to be communicated through his experience. Though he admits apprehension about the transplant, he talks of the need to "break the barrier of distrust" that lingers between some African-Americans and the medical community. He wants to relay the capable and compassionate care he's received from his doctors, who treat him as though he's "a celebrity."
He's urging African-Americans to get regular checkups; sarcoidosis occurs more frequently among black men and women than whites. "There are guys I know that go months, years, without going to the doctor," he laments.
Baker even let a local TV station tape his transplant surgery because, he said, he "wanted to bring a greater awareness, particularly to the minority community, about how important organ donation is." Locally, he hopes to set up a trust to offset the cost of organ transplants for others in need. Baker himself has amassed more than $100,000 in medical bills, largely because his former health insurer dropped him from its plan.
Finally, in several weeks he wishes to personally thank the family of the donor who saved him. Baker doesn't know his name, doesn't know how he died. All he knows is that the man was 23 years old and had a heart that doctors said was too big.
It's because of this man that a 57-year-old gets to celebrate two birthdays in one year. To continue a life that's touched so many others in central Illinois. To be reborn, in a sense, both physically and spiritually, for another Easter Sunday.
"I live because of him," Baker said. "I'm living through him. I'm a walking and living miracle."
Enjoy — and appreciate — this day, everybody.