The Keene Sentinel
By: Paul Cuno-Booth / Contributing Writer || Mar 5, 2022
After years of worsening heart disease, Mahdavy was so weak by then he could barely move about the house. A few months earlier, surgeons had installed a heart pump to keep him alive while he waited for a transplant.
He and his wife, Ellie, were excited to get the call, though in the back of his mind he knew it could still fall through.
“By the time … you’re sick enough that you qualify for a heart transplant, life has been so difficult and so miserable and so unpleasant that you don’t think about the surgery, you don’t think about anything,” he said. “I had made my peace. I had said, ‘God, I’ve done about everything I can do, and I’m at one of the best medical centers in the world. The rest is up to you.’ ”
Another call came, telling them to head in.
Their focus turned to logistics — packing spare batteries for his heart pump, making sure they left time for the hour and a half drive from their home outside Springfield, Mass. Ellie drove. Hamid texted his boss, called his sisters, told his and Ellie’s two adult kids.
On arrival, he waited in the ER until they had a room for him upstairs. They came to get him for surgery around 8:30 a.m.
“I don’t remember much after that,” Mahdavy recalled. “I have brief memories of my wife and kids and stuff, like my daughter saying, ‘Hey, the surgery went well and you got a young heart.’ ”
Mahdavy, 66, says his body adapted well to the new heart, and after a long recovery, he resumed an active life. Now living in Antrim, he’s giving back through his involvement in organ-donation causes, supporting heart patients and encouraging others to register as organ donors.
“It was like somebody had given me life again,” he said.
‘A normal life’
Mahdavy’s first inkling that something was amiss with his heart came in college.
“Basically the doctor at that point said, ‘You can live a normal life,’ ” Mahdavy said. He was advised to get checked every few years, but the doctor told him he might never see any effects, at least not before age 50. “Which to an 18-year-old, that’s like an eternity away,” he said.
His life moved forward. He had intended to eventually return to Iran, but decided to stay in America after the 1979 revolution — Mahdavy is a member of the Bahá’í faith, which he says was persecuted under the new regime.
He moved to western Massachusetts, found a job as an engineer, started a family, got a little out of shape, started smoking, quit smoking and began cycling in his 40s. He resolved to do a 100-mile bike ride before turning 50, and then did.
A year and a half later, in the winter of 2007, he came down with a severe cold. After recovering, he still felt short of breath. His doctor diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat that can lead to serious complications if not treated.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t a good patient,” Mahdavy, a self-described workaholic, said. “I didn’t come in on time and didn’t do stuff. They saw me finally, and they said, ‘Well, you gotta do this.’ I said, ‘OK, well, I’m really busy at work, I’ll catch you guys next time I’m back in town.’ ”
He started feeling much worse that summer. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go up a flight of stairs, I couldn’t sleep at night,” he recalled. He was diagnosed with heart failure.
Mahdavy began a regimen of treatment, but his heart kept weakening. By 2015, his doctor said he likely needed a transplant and sent him to Tufts for evaluation. In September 2016, he had open-heart surgery to install a heart pump to keep him alive while he waited on the transplant list.
“I was pretty sick,” he said. “I came home, I had a tube going in my abdomen that was connected to the pump, and I had an IV going in my arm … I basically would wake out of bed, come downstairs, sit on the couch, couldn’t do much.”
Two months later, he and Ellie were watching TV when Tufts called.
‘His last whatever he had’
Slaver had grown up in Farmington, Maine. His mother, Charlene Slaver-Roosevelt, recalled that he asked to be homeschooled from an early age. “He was more interested in studying things that really aren’t offered in public schools,” she said.
He learned Creole as a second language, she said, inspired by her mission work in Haiti; he would send part of his allowance to a school there, and wrote letters to Haitians they knew. He learned viola so he could play music for nursing-home residents and volunteered at warming centers.
“He’d give you his last — whatever he had,” she recalled. “That was just how he was.”
Joey’s faith was important to him, Slaver-Roosevelt said. He was passionate about the Old Testament, enrolled in a Bible institute at age 18 and took up the guitar to be involved in music ministries. Movies were another passion, and he had aspired to become a film director working on Christian films.
“He would always talk about, ‘When I get to heaven I’m gonna ask all these questions that I don’t know,’ ” she said. “And he would talk about which character in the Bible he wanted to meet.”
When he was young, Slaver-Roosevelt recalled, Joey asked why she was an organ donor. She told him that if she could help someone else stay alive or regain their health, she should. A cousin he was close to had also been born with renal failure and received a donated kidney, she said.
It was only after the accident that she learned he had, in fact, signed up.
Slaver died on Oct. 31, 2016, after a few days on life support. Slaver-Roosevelt said the hospital staff and donor-services people patiently explained the process to her, and gave her time to say goodbye.
They asked about his favorite music, and had her bring in pictures and write something about Joey.
“In the ER they play all his music, during the procedures,” she recalled. “And for every surgeon, they read what you wrote about him. And they wanted pictures and things like that. They do this honor walk, and all the nurses and doctors and staff line the hallway, and I get to walk with him down to the OR room. And they don’t rush you, you take your time, and say your goodbyes.”
She recalled seeing the first patient, who she later learned was Mahdavy, come in for her son’s heart. Others got his liver, kidneys, corneas and other organs and bones.
The identities of donors and patients are kept confidential, but New England Donor Services can facilitate communication for those who choose. In early 2018, she got a letter from Hamid and Ellie Mahdavy.
Mahdavy recovered gradually after the surgery. He spent 19 days in a critical care unit in the hospital before being discharged to a rehab facility. Physical therapists helped him relearn “the basic living skills — eating again, bathing, personal hygiene,” he said. “I couldn’t do any of that, I was so weak.”
As he regained his strength, simple pleasures returned — showering, eating foods with salt, walking up and down stairs without it being completely exhausting.
He still takes daily medications and remains immunocompromised, so he and Ellie took extra precautions during the pandemic. But he says he’s back to feeling pretty normal.
Last summer, they sold their home in Massachusetts and moved to their vacation home in Antrim. Mahdavy is mostly retired, though he still does some part-time work; his wife works for ISO New England, the regional grid operator.
Since his transplant, Mahdavy has been active in organ-donation causes — fulfilling a promise he made to himself during his illness, that he would give back if he survived. He works with New England Donor Services and HeartBrothers Foundation, which helps heart-failure patients through peer counseling and financial aid.
Once Mahdavy decided to contact his donor’s family, he said, writing the letter was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He didn’t know what to say, and wondered how it would feel to be on the other end.
“I’m grateful for this organ, for this gift of life, and I wanted to do absolutely nothing to pick at the scab, pick at the wound in their heart of losing a loved one,” he said.
He soon heard back from Slaver-Roosevelt, and after some correspondence they decided to meet. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 2018, she met Mahdavy and his family at what was then still their vacation home in Antrim. He brought a stethoscope so she could listen to her son’s heart.
They’ve since become close friends. Slaver-Roosevelt said Mahdavy reminds her of her son in some ways — humble, a deep thinker, a kind soul. They sometimes speak together at events about organ donation. Before the pandemic, they would meet up on Oct. 31, the anniversary of Joey’s death.
“I’ve grown to love Hamid and Ellie for being Hamid and Ellie, not because they carry my son’s heart,” Slaver-Roosevelt said. “… Because of the people they are, things they do; they give back.”
Slaver-Roosevelt still struggles with grief at times. “I do cry hard some days, and I do wear his clothes some days, and his room is exactly as it was when he left here,” she said. “But in time, you heal. It’s baby steps.”
She’s also touched by how many people her son’s organs have helped, and glad that Mahdavy’s wife, two children and three grandchildren didn’t have to lose him.
She has also become friends with the woman who received her son’s liver and one of his kidneys. Last year, the woman told her she’d pulled a child out of the water while canoeing, Slaver-Roosevelt recalled. “She said, ‘If Joey had not given me this chance, a child may not have had that chance.’ ”
Slaver-Roosevelt remarried in 2019. Mahdavy was her groom’s best man and walked her down the aisle.
“When we got up to the top, he hugged me, and he hugged me so hard I could feel his heart beating,” she said. “And I remember saying to him, ‘I’m not gonna make it.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna pass out right here.’ And he’s like, ‘You got this.’ ”