A Valentine’s Day survival story, from the heart
— Albert EinsteinOn this Valentine’s Day, how about a nice story about broken hearts, one that will surely warm ours?
Meet Lew Briggs, retired military pilot and fitness devotee.
It was late summer 2006, and there was Lew, slowly pushing a bicycle that he just couldn’t ride any more. So frail and feeble, his breathing was labored, his voice strained. We talked about neighborhood issues, and how Lew was doing.
With a shrugging smile, he said he was just trying to stay active and hoping to “get better soon.”
Lew never said it but he knew it — he was nearing death’s dark door. As he slowly walked away pushing that bicycle, I wondered if I would see my neighbor again.
Today, Lew Briggs is a renewed physical specimen. At 63, with that mop of white hair and matching moustache, he looks more like an eager old surfer than the darn good neighborhood golfer he is. Last August he had a hip transplant, and now he’s playing better than ever — and collecting more bets than ever. His Coosaw Creek golfing buddies, who for years had reassured him with genuine friendship, love it.
“I don’t get tired, I don’t get cold,” Lew says. “I feel like I’m 40 again.”
Lew’s remarkable journey was scripted in 1987. He was an Air Force Academy graduate flying C-141 Starlifters out of Charleston.
A routine annual physical turned into complex testing, and then a diagnosis of a congenital heart disorder that portends heart failure and the possibility of sudden death. Major Briggs’ solid military career ended abruptly. He was 37.
Lew stuck around Charleston, had a civilian career as a flight-simulator instructor and continued his life-long physical fitness disciplines.
But heart failure is an implacable enemy. Sooner or later, it wins.
Lew’s symptoms progressed insidiously as an assault on his active lifestyle. In late 2006, he grew weaker by the day.
“I could see death coming,” he said. “I confronted it, I acknowledged it, I cried about it.”
Yes, there’s a sweetheart in this broken-heart story. That would be Sandy Briggs. Lew says his wife was more than a caregiver and loving consoler. “She was a warrior,” he says.
Sandy Briggs saw her husband struggling and fighting for life, but never complaining. “He was determined his illness would not define who he is. He showed such grace and courage.”
In 2005, after 14 years of treating Lew, cardiologist Dr. Thomas Duncan referred him to his colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina. Lew was a disciplined man with that hopeful spirit and strong family and friendship support. He seemed a good candidate for a heart transplant, or maybe a life-sustaining mechanical heart.
At MUSC, Lew’s “team” included Drs. John Ikonomidis, Adrian Van Bakel and Jackson Crumbley, and scores of nurses and technical practitioners. These doctors have the unimaginable responsibility to determine who gets a donor heart — and who doesn’t.
Lew recalls his concern for his doctors. “Making life-or-death decisions must be the toughest duty in medicine,” he says.
Surely that’s true, but Lew was in a good place at a good time. The MUSC transplant team had the second best one-year survival rate in the U.S., and the average waiting time for a donor heart was the shortest in the nation — two months or less. The national average was eight months.
He finally made that transplant waiting list on Nov. 28, 2006. Good news, for sure, but Lew was suffering end-stage heart failure. His journey became a race, not a wait.
And Lew probably was on his deathbed at MUSC when the call came on Jan. 27, 2007. A 23-year-old man had died suddenly in Columbia. His donor heart was a match and on its way to Charleston.
And in a matter of days, the lights of life went on again for Lew Briggs. His struggle was transformed to a pervasive sense of awe and gratitude. “The MUSC team rescued me,” he says. “And that family in Columbia, in their grief, they saved my life. Every day, I say, ‘Thank you,’ and I always will.”
Sweetheart Sandy gives her husband a double birthday party every January, one for his regular birthday and one for his glorious “re-birthday.”
If Lew Briggs had not made it, his friends would have remembered him precisely the way Sandy described her husband — for his graceful and courageous reach for life.
And on the sixth anniversary of his life re-booted, Lew now has a catalog of simple declarations that he is a “humbly grateful man.”
“I’m living a miracle,” he says. “That’s for sure.”Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.