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Stanford Report, February 6, 2002

Local transplant patient and wife reach out to inmate who received new heart


When a California prison inmate received a heart transplant at the medical center last January, Mike Miraglia was lying in Stanford Hospital's intensive care unit, waiting for a heart himself.

From his bed, he watched as news reports questioned the ethics and cost of providing a heart to an inmate. But he said he never posed those questions himself. Instead, Miraglia asked, "What? Are they kidding? How could choosing to save a person's life be unethical?"

The 55-year-old Castro Valley resident happened to share an ICU room with the inmate and the two had become friends. Miraglia, who was suffering from cardio-myopathy, a condition that progressively weakens the heart, had been waiting 68 days for a heart when one became available Jan. 3.

When a suitable heart appeared for transplant patient Mike Miraglia, he wasn't able at the time to undergo surgery. Instead, the heart went to another transplant patient, who happened to be a prison inmate. Miraglia and his wife were surprised by the uproar that followed and felt the inmate deserved the new heart as much as anyone else. Miraglia is shown with his wife Cheryl (center) and their daughter Jenna.

The organ was a good match for both Miraglia and the inmate, "John," whose identity remains confidential. But earlier that day, Miraglia had been implanted with a left ventricular assist device, a pump to keep him alive while waiting for a suitable heart.

His surgeons determined he was not yet strong enough to undergo a second operation, said Mary Burge, a social worker in Stanford Hospital's heart transplant program. So the organ went to the inmate, who was next in line. It was an emotional time for Miraglia and his wife, Cheryl.

"I would be lying if I said the news did not bring tears to my eyes, but I have to say the fact that a heart went to a prisoner was never an issue," she wrote in an e-mail message sent to some 85 family members and friends.

In the message, she reflected on why she believed John was destined to receive the heart that day and not her husband.

"I think God's reasons are far more vast than anything I could imagine, but here's what I came up with to start: I think John received the heart because: a) Everyone deserves a second chance; and b) God must have great things in store for him. Mike didn't receive the heart because a) while it was a ‘premium' heart, it wasn't the right heart for Mike and not the right time....; and b) the best is yet to come.

"As I get older, I am realizing that there are reasons for everything and very few, if any, coincidences. I think we are all interconnected and there's a reason that each of us is in each other's life. So, I believe there is a reason that Mike had surgery on Jan. 3 and John got a new heart that day. There is a reason they ended up in the same ICU room. There is a reason that they talked and got to be friends….

"Are there times when I wish it was Mike who got that heart and not someone else? You bet. It's been a long haul and the future is more than just a little scary," she wrote.

The day after she sent the letter, a new heart became available for her husband. He received a transplant last week and is doing well, Burge said. He is scheduled to be discharged later this week, according to his wife. As for John, Burge said he was treated no differently than any other patient. He remained in the hospital until Jan. 17, when he was discharged to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville. He is doing well and will return to Stanford for periodic checkups, Burge said. The Miraglias have said they will stay in touch with him.

Cheryl Miraglia noted that John was on security watch day and night while in the hospital. He could not have regular visitors and received no cards or letters, apart from what they gave him through the security guard. "It is so hard to imagine anyone going through this ordeal without loved ones and friends to support them," she wrote. "So while you continue to pray for us, please remember John in your prayers as well."

Stanford Hospital & Clinics