They met in the hospital waiting room, two strangers facing down their worst fears. What they didn’t know, as they prayed for each other, was that one’s greatest loss would mean new hope for the other.
It’s not that Carman Moloney expected to die. She was just desperate to save her mother’s life. That’s why the trim young woman with the glistening brown eyes and shoulder-length chestnut hair kept a boldfaced card pinned to the sun visor of her car. It was addressed to emergency medical personnel, and it read: MY MOTHER IS ON THE THIRD FLOOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND MEDICAL CENTER. IF I AM IN AN ACCIDENT, PLEASE MAKE SURE MY ORGANS ARE SENT DIRECTLY TO HER.
Bobbie diSabatino, Carman’s then-56-year-old mother, had suffered a massive heart attack in October 1997. Doctors revived her, but her prognosis was grave. After receiving the last rites of the Catholic church, she had been told she would not live without a heart transplant. As the days went by, Bobbie lay in the cardiac care unit of the Baltimore hospital, watching patients on her floor die–and waiting.
Both Bobbie and her daughter, who kept a 12-hour-a-day vigil at the hospital, knew the chances of survival were slim: With more than 4,000 people across the country also waiting for a heart, finding one that matched Bobbie’s blood type and body size could take another day, or another three years.
However long it took, Carman, 32, was determined to stay by her mother’s side. Mother and daughter were exceptionally dose, and Bobbie had always been there for Carman. When Carman’s first marriage broke up seven years earlier, she and her 2-year-old son, Michael, moved in with her mother until she could get back on her feet. Bobbie’s love was unconditional and unwavering. “All daughters should be blessed to have a mother like mine,” Carman often told herself. “Why does God want to take her from me?”
The days stretched into weeks. Carman was there every morning to bathe her mother. She took Bobbie’s vital signs and joked with the nurses. And she was there when the social workers came to warn them about clinging to false hope.
But Bobbie was determined to hold on. “In the beginning, we saw people die,” she recalls. “Almost one every day. I felt that I was fifty-six years old, and I’m not dying! I just made up my mind. They were not carrying me out on a green table.”
With Christmas came real hope–a heart compatible with Bobbie’s had been found. But just before the scheduled surgery, the family was told the organ did not pump blood properly and could not be transplanted. For the next few weeks, Carman watched as her mother languished on the waiting list. By January, she could hardly walk from one end of the hallway to the other, even with help.
SHORTLY AFTER THE CRUSHING NEWS OF the defective donor heart, Carman was taking a break in the glass-enclosed atrium next to the hospital’s visitors’ lounge. Huddling in the patio area where smoking was allowed, she lit a cigarette with a trembling hand. Then she began to weep.
“Are you okay?”
It was a man’s voice. He had just walked outside for a cigarette himself, and noticed the woman crying.
“No,” she said, looking up. “My mother’s dying.”
Carman sobbed as she told the stranger her story. He took her inside, and the two sat down and talked. He was 35, neatly dressed, with light brown hair and a gentle manner. His name, he said, was Bob, and his wife had been hospitalized because of a rare brain defect. But unlike Carman’s mother, she was not in critical condition, and doctors expected her to leave the hospital within a week.
The next day Bob and Carman ran into each other again. She told him her mother had had a good night and seemed in good spirits. Bob was happy for Carman, and he began talking more about his wife. Cheryl Bradshaw was 38, blond, and attractive; she was a devoted mother to her four children, and a fixture at the youngest’s school. Cheryl had started getting headaches in December, but neither she nor her husband thought they were anything serious. Then, on the night of December 13, after a Christmas party for employees of the tunnel-construction company Bob co-owns with his three brothers, Cheryl suffered a grand mal seizure. Bob rushed her to a local county hospital, which quickly transferred her to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
There, doctors performed a battery, of tests. Bob said he would never forget the look on the radiologist’s face when he saw the CAT stun and blurted out, “How has this woman lived to be this age?”
As it turned out, Cheryl had been born with a rare defect: The veins and arteries of her brain were tangled together, depriving the brain of blood and causing a dangerous buildup of blood pressure. Although such cases are often curable with radiation, Cheryl’s condition, previously undetected, was so advanced that her only option was to undergo surgery.
Cheryl went home for Christmas, and celebrated her thirty-eighth birthday on New Year’s Eve. Almost two weeks later, she returned to the hospital for the scheduled surgery, which lasted 27 hours.
It was just after the operation when Bob first ran into Carman in the waiting room. He was hopeful, he told her, that his wife would have a complete recovery. Carman agreed that they would all celebrate together–Carman and her mother, Bob and Cheryl–with a bottle of wine, when Cheryl and Bobbie were well and out of the hospital.
But a few days later, Carman found Bob in the smoking area, leaning against the cold brick wall and crying.
“Are you okay?” she asked, in what would become a familiar refrain.
He had been so relieved, Bob said, when his wife got through the difficult operation. But now, she had begun hemorrhaging. She was in a coma and on life support.
DOCTORS REMOVED PART OF CHERYL’S brain to make room for the swelling caused by the hemorrhage. But Bob was still optimistic, he told Carman during one of their daily chats. In the two weeks they’d known each other, they had forged a special bond–a “foxhole” relationship, hospital personnel call it. No one else knows what you’re going through. No one else understands the lonely days and sleepless nights. People in waiting rooms are there for one purpose, and the helplessness and misery can be overwhelming.
Bob would listen while Carman talked about her second marriage, which was under considerable stress, or her 9-year-old son. Carman would try to find the right words to comfort Bob when he worried about his wife and their three children. Kristen, 12, Sara, 10, and Kyle, 7, were having a rough time without their mother. (Sherrie, Cheryl’s daughter by a previous marriage, divided her time between college in North Carolina and the hospital.) The kids made cards for their mother every day, and Bob would read them aloud at Cheryl’s bedside. “Dear Mom,” began one from Sara, “I miss you. When I got home I played with my science kit. Squeeze Dad’s hand if you like [the card].”
Cheryl pressed Bob’s hand–and though she couldn’t open her eyes, Bob noticed tears rolling down her cheek when he finished reading. It was a sign, he believed, that she was getting better. And the doctors confirmed it: For almost two weeks, her improvement was steady. During the first week of February, Bob’s waiting-room talks with Carman were filled with plans for his wife’s rehabilitation. Despite the fact that her mother was now in critical condition and not expected to live for more than a few weeks, Carman was happy for him.
BUT ON A TUESDAY AFTERNOON, SOMETHING went terribly wrong. There was another rupture in Cheryl’s brain. The doctor reading the CAT scan told Bob it was “a lethal bleed.” She was again hooked up to life support, and this time the doctors did not mention rehab.
Bob had lost 15 pounds in five weeks and hadn’t slept more than four hours a night. Now, he knew it was the end. “That’s when I brought the kids in,” he explains. The next day, after nurses put a blue hat over Cheryl’s nearly bald head and did her makeup, her three young children arrived and climbed into bed with their mom, holding her hand and asking when she might wake up.
TWO DAYS LATER, ON FEBRUARY 12, DOCTORS told Bob that Cheryl would likely be pronounced brain-dead that night. Nurses asked if they could turn off the IV drip. Bob told them to leave it alone.
But as the day wore on, it became clear that Cheryl would not make it through the night. As nurses and doctors hurried in and out of the room, checking the machines that monitored Cheryl’s sky-rocketing brain pressure, Bob grappled with the realization that he was about to lose his wife forever. And then he had an idea. He asked to speak with the on-staff nurse who handled organ-donation procedures and counseling. Bob knew Cheryl had wanted to donate her organs; she had checked “yes” on her Maryland driver’s license. Now he posed a startling question: Could he request that her heart go directly to Carman’s mother? Certainly she needed it as desperately as anyone.
The nurse said that direct donations, though very rare, were permitted.
Bob took the elevator downstairs. When he ran into Carman, he told her there was no hope for Cheryl. Carman was already crying when Bob told her of his request. “If it’s a match,” he said softly, “I want her heart to go to your mom.” For a split second, Carman didn’t understand. Bob repeated himself. Carman collapsed, sobbing.
“You’ve never even met my mother,” she said. “I don’t understand. We have to think about this.”
Bob took Carman to the waiting room, where she tried to compose herself. No one has ever given me a gift like this, she remembers thinking.
Carman was nearly as exhausted as Bob, but as she started to accept the idea of the donation, she realized they’d have to act quickly. So she ran to find the medical director of cardiac transplantation, Ronald Freudenberger, M.D., who was not convinced that the scheme would work. Next, surgeon John Conte, M.D., then director of heart and lung transplantation, was called. He’d performed more than 150 transplant operations, but never one like this. “Direct donation of a heart is almost nonexistent,” he says now. “I’d never heard of it.”
Both doctors felt that this donation had nearly a million-to-one chance. Organ and body size, as well as blood type, would have to match in order for them to approve the operation.
But after reviewing the data, they informed Carman that Cheryl’s heart was, miraculously, a fit. Cheryl and Bobbie didn’t have the same blood type; however, as Type O, Cheryl was a universal donor. The doctors were willing to go ahead.
Late that night, after his wife had been declared dead and he had made the final arrangements for donating her organs, Bob returned to the third floor and knocked on Bobble diSabatino’s door. Having just spoken to her daughter, Bobble was sitting in bed, saying a rosary for the Bradshaws.
“Is this room 306?”
She looked up. “Yes. Are you Bob?”
Bobble felt a strange inner peace. She felt that she knew him. They hugged and cried.
“I can never repay you,” the woman whispered, her husky voice choked with gratitude.
BOB BRADSHAW’S ORDEAL WAS FAR FROM over. Not only did he have to plan his wife’s funeral, he also urgently needed to talk to his children. He knew that the local media had been alerted to the direct donation and that his children might learn the truth about a past their mother had taken pains to hide. Unbelievable as it seems, Cheryl Bradshaw had been in the news before–the center of an entirely different but no less tragic story of life trading places with death.
So in the cozy den of their suburban Maryland home, Bob Bradshaw gathered his family: his 20-year-old stepdaughter, Sherrie Waldrup, then a sophomore at Duke University, along with the three younger children. From the back of a closet he pulled out a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings, and a dusty wooden plaque. It was engraved to Cheryl from the FBI. The children were dumbstruck and asked what the items meant. Their mother’s previous identity, Bob told them, was Cheryl Peichowicz. Her story was both a shock and a comfort to her children.
IN 1983, CHERYL AND HER THEN HUSBAND, Scott Peichowicz, worked at the Warren House Hotel in Pikesville, MD, and were witnesses in a felony drag-trafficking case. It was Cheryl, then 23, who had identified one of the suspects, Anthony Grandison, as a lodger at the hotel, placing him in the room where drugs were found. Both Cheryl and her husband were planning to testify, against him. Before they could, Grandison, already in jail, hired a hit man to kill them for $9,000. But on the day of the planned hit, Cheryl–who had stayed up late the night before wall-papering her daughter Sherrie’s bedroom–asked her sister, Susan Kennedy, to fill in for her at the front desk of the hotel.
On April 28, a machine-gun-toting hit man walked into the lobby and, in a spray of bullets, assassinated 19-year-old Susan-mistaking her for Cheryl–and 27-year-old Scott Piechowicz.
The gangland-style murders made the front page. The FBI whisked Cheryl and then-5-year-old Sherrie to safety. They were kept in protective custody, moving from one safe house to another. Finally, Cheryl–who had changed her last name–testified against Grandison and the assassin who’d killed her sister and her husband. Both were convicted of murder. (They are still on death row in Maryland, awaiting execution.)
Government agents offered Cheryl a choice of cities to relocate to, but she refused to move. The convicted men filed numerous appeals, and each time she was called to take the stand, Cheryl did. “She was one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met,” says former state and Federal prosecutor David B. Irwin. “Under extreme pressure, she had a commitment to justice.”
Six months after the murders, Cheryl enrolled at a local college and met fellow student Bob Bradshaw. The two fell in love and were married. For 15 years, Cheryl assumed the anonymity of a suburban housewife. Only her husband and parents knew of the nightmares that kept her awake at night, the wrenching fear each time a new trial date was set.
Bob Bradshaw says his children are proud of what their mother did for others. But the youngest, Kyle, still doesn’t understand how her heart could now beat in someone else’s body. “How is it,” he asked one day, “that my mommy can be dead but this woman is alive and has mommy’s heart?”
ON VALENTINE’S DAY, BOBBIE diSabatino woke up with Cheryl Bradshaw’s heart. Two days later, the Bradshaw children performed one of their favorite songs, “My Heart Will Go On,” at their mother’s funeral.
For Bob, the strangeness hit a week after the transplant, when Bobble, at home and on the mend, cooked him dinner. Watching her chest rise and fall gave him an “eerie, peaceful feeling,” Bob says.
He had brought photos of Cheryl and newspaper clippings. He wanted Bobble to know, he says, “what a heroic, loving individual Cheryl was. Not just in having the foresight to agree to be an organ donor, but in every part of her life.”
Carman visits the Bradshaws often–to help Bob plant flowers by the pool as Cheryl liked to do or to take the children out to play miniature golf. She still feels a profound sense of gratitude and the weight of a gift she can never repay. “I’ll never be able to do for him what he did for me,” she explains. “He gave me back a life I had lost.”