Local patients celebrate holidays and a second chance

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


  marjean hawkins photo 12-21

Photo by Dermot Connolly

Marjean Hawkins, a lung-transplant recipient from Oak Lawn, celebrates with her surgeon, Charles C. Alex, MD, at the Advocate Heart Institute’s annual holiday party for patients held last Thursday at Advocate Christ Medical Center.


More than 150 people celebrated getting a second chance at life, either for themselves, a family member or a patient, at an annual holiday party for transplant patients last Thursday at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

The Advocate Heart Institute hosted the party, one of the largest of its kind in the Chicago area, in the conference center at the hospital at 9300 S. Kilbourn Ave. The festivities included plenty of food and refreshments, music and raffle prizes, for people who received ventricular assist devices to treat advanced heart failure, as well as recipients of heart and lung transplants.

The patients and their guests got a chance to visit with the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who helped get them through their surgeries and on the road to recovery. Several of them shared their stories of survival as the party was getting started.

“Seeing everyone all in one room is pretty amazing. To see patients that were so sick now living good lives is a wonderful holiday gift,” says Gina Roache, executive director of the Advocate Heart Institute.   

 William Cotts MD, clinical director of heart transplant and mechanical assist devices at Advocate Christ, expressed admiration for his patients and their families.

In 2017, 22 heart transplants were done at Advocate Christ, along with 10 lung transplants and implantation of 154 ventricular assist devices. That last number included the procedures done as a short-term bridge until a heart becomes available, as well as those for people who have them implanted as a permanent solution.

The Advocate Heart Institute performs more than 1,200 open heart surgeries and 5,000 cardiac interventions each year, making it one of the busiest centers in the Midwest.

 Marie Morack, RN, outreach coordinator for the heart transplant program, gave all the patients scarves she knitted herself as holiday presents.

“It is great to see you here in circumstances like this, enjoying yourselves. What you have experienced must be overwhelming. As doctors and nurses, we can give you advice about how to do things or what might happen. But we don’t really know what it is like (to experience a transplant procedure). We greatly appreciate all that you go through and your family members and friends go through. It is hard for them, too, because while you are asleep they are awake thinking about what is happening,” said Cotts.

“I really feel like the luckiest man in the world to be doing this. I am thankful to my colleagues and the hospital for being so supportive,” said Cotts, looking around the crowded room.

the langs photo 12-21


Photo by Dermot Connolly

Worth residents Robert and Eleonore Lang enjoyed the Advocate Heart Institute’s holiday party for transplant patients held last Thursday at Advocate Christ Medical Center. They have been attending the annual event since Charles received a left ventricle assist device in 2013.

Many patients said they were feeling pretty lucky, too.

Marjean Hawkins, of Oak Lawn, who received a lung transplant a little over a year ago, was one of those celebrating her new lease on life at the party.

“My dog didn’t recognize me when I came home without my oxygen tubes I had for three years,” said Hawkins.

She said her transplant was needed because one of her lungs was so badly scarred by severe rheumatoid arthritis.

“A lot of people assumed I was a smoker, but that was not the case,” she said.

“This is the best place in the world. I am really grateful to everybody, especially this guy,” said Hawkins, as she hugged her surgeon, Dr. Charles C. Alex, a pulmonary disease specialist.

“I wouldn’t have any quality of life without the transplant,” she said.

“We are just starting out with lung transplants here. The program is growing and doing well. We’re trying to reinvigorate people’s lives,” said Alex.

Robert Lang, of Worth, and his wife, Eleonore, have been coming to the holiday parties since he received his left ventricular assist device nearly five years ago.

LVADs help the weakened left ventricle pump blood to the aorta. Lang, who uses a portable oxygen tank to assist his breathing, said that his LVAD is a long-term solution.

“I am not a candidate for a transplant, because my lungs are too bad. But I am very happy with this,” said Lang, 72, gesturing to the battery pack he carries with him to power the internal pump.

“I haven’t been able to work since 2005 because of my health. But I can drive and do nearly everything else. Just nothing with water, because I can’t get the power source wet,” he explained.

“My surgery was on April Fool’s Day, of all days, 2013,” Lang said with a grin. “I call it the best and worst day of my life.”

He said the “worst” because his dog died the same day, while he was hospitalized. “My other dog was buried in a pet cemetery, and wanted to do the same for him. They were able to keep him in a cooler until I was able to get home and say good-bye.”

Lang quickly cheered up when conversation turned back to his experiences at Christ.

“The people here are just great. The only thing wrong with it is the cable service sucks,” he said. “Half-a-billion-dollar hospital and 10-cent cable,” he said, only half-jokingly.

“I guess they don’t want you to get too comfortable,” said Eleonore.