A thread of life: Zephyr Cove man’s life depends on organ donor | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A thread of life: Zephyr Cove man’s life depends on organ donor

Jeff Munson, Tribune city editor

With a degenerative condition where his heart could easily beat out of control at any time, Jim Shahan’s fate rests in the hands of someone who will die.

But the 59-year-old general contractor from Zephyr Cove is far from dwelling on his uncertain fate. Instead, he’s dealing with his affliction — an enlarged heart — with resounding contentment.

And a mission.

“I want to educate as many people as I can before I die on the importance of organ donorship,” Shahan said. “Not only can my life be saved from someone else’s heart, but there are thousands out there who are in the same boat as I am.”

Shahan was diagnosed with the condition in 1981 when he was pouring concrete on a construction project. His heart began beating rapidly.

Rushed to the hospital, Shahan’s doctor told him he was eight hours away from dying because his heart was four times larger than normal.

He was immediately put on medication which reduced the size of his heart. But over the years, Shahan’s heart became more tolerant to the drugs to the point where they no longer worked.

That was two years ago. On a pacemaker now, Shahan suffers from shortness of breath and feels a throbbing pain in his chest.

“We’re all aimed to die sometime,” Shahan said, looking up toward the heavens. “I’ve had a great life so far and I want to keep on living. But the good Lord will do what he decides he wants done.”

This doesn’t mean that Shahan is throwing in the towel.

In fact, he’s committed “for the rest of my life” to encourage people to be organ donors when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

“There are thousands of people every year who die from (organ) failure and a lot of people, thousands, even millions more out there that can save a life.”

According to the California Transplant Donor Network which tracks organ donors throughout the country, about 80,000 people are on a nationwide organ transplant waiting list.

Last year, about 6,000 people received transplants.

Armed with a pager, Shahan is on a national organ donor list, and will be on an operating table six hours after a donor has been selected.

A network of airplane pilots, called “Angel Flight” are on call to transport transplant recipients to hospitals. Shahan’s transplant will be at UC San Francisco Medical Center.

While doctors have not given him a round number on how long he has to live, a visit to the hospital two weeks ago gave a prognosis that wasn’t favorable.

“The doctor calls it heart failure — (it) is slowly taking oxygen away from the lungs,” he said. “I want to live, and I’m going to keep on fighting to live.”

Celia Rafkin, heart and lung transplant coordinator for the UCSF Medical Center said Shahan’s positive approach to finding a donor makes the process better for the family.

“Jimmy’s a fighter, all the way,” Rafkin said.

Shahan no longer works, but oversees his two sons with contracting work. While he can’t do everything he wants to do, he still tries to remain as active as his condition allows. He fishes, does non-aerobic exercises every morning and manages to work some, sans the physical activity.

“I’ve got to keep my hands in the business,” he said with a pause, followed by a smile and wince. “Somebody’s got to show them the right way to do the job.”

Always one to keep a sense of humor, Shahan said it’s his wife of 40 years, Nichole, sons James and Donnie and his grandchildren that keep his spirits high.

“I can’t spend my time worrying about something I have no control over,” he said. “I’ve had a great life and I want it to go on. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the gifts that have been given to me.”

For more information on the California Donor Transplant Network, log onto http://www.transweb.org

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