- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Tim Heely’s 33-year career in military service included flying combat missions in the Gulf War and leading a major Navy command. But it was the generous donation of a heart last month that saved the retired rear admiral’s life after what he described as a silent heart attack two years ago.
Heely, 60, is now focused on regaining his strength at his Leonardtown home and setting goals for himself. Among those milestones is participating as a narrator in the River Concert Series tonight, Friday, June 28, at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“I can’t just waste this third chance in life watching TV,” he said. “I really love the college,” he said.
He was appointed by the governor as a member of the college’s board of trustees in 2011.
Heely has attended and supported the summer concert series at St. Mary’s College since it started in 1999. “It’s a really good way for the college to give something back to the community,” he said. “The concert has become a local tradition.
“I actually had a heart attack two years ago, but I didn’t realize I had one” until weeks later, Heely said this week.
He woke up with shortness of breath, which continued for days. His wife, Cherie, encouraged him to see a doctor, who in turn ran tests and told him he had indeed experienced a heart attack.
“First of all, I was just really glad I was alive,” he said.
Heely retired in 2008, after serving as commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. He regularly ran four to five miles a day and was active with his work and civic duties.
Those accomplishments and challenges were dwarfed when Heely underwent heart surgery, and at one point flatlined after having stents installed, he said. “They paddled me back” to life.
His condition was so severe that he had a heart pump attached externally until a transplant became available.
“I was always walking around with batteries or plugged in,” he said. The pump itself fitted in a fanny pack, and he often carried the batteries around in his pockets to be as discreet as possible.
Because of a shortage of available donors, Heely ended up wearing the external pump for two years as he waited for a new heart. The average wait is usually only about six months, he said.
During that time he could not go swimming or walk through metal detectors. He also could not use a vacuum cleaner because of the static electricity. Vacuuming was not something he usually did, he acknowledged, but he found himself wanting to.
He said his family, including a daughter and two sons, has become closer since the heart attack. And on May 5 he received the call he and his family had been waiting for — a heart was available. Two days later he underwent the surgery, and two weeks after that he was home recovering.
One of his immediate goals was to attend the first River Concert Series of the summer last Friday. He made it, he said, and will be on stage as narrator at this week’s concert.
“He’s just a remarkable figure of courage,” Jeffrey Silberschlag, director of the Chesapeake Orchestra, said.
“They’re both beautiful pieces,” he said of the selection called “Tyrannosaurus Sue” that will be narrated by Heely and “Peter the Wolf,” featuring dancers from Ballet Caliente and narration by the ballet company’s director.
“I want to do it, because I want to prove I can do it” after the heart transplant, Heely said. The former Navy fighter pilot is also planning to make a pitch at the concert about the importance of recognizing and treating health problems and the need for more people to be organ donors.
Currently about 52 percent of Maryland driver’s license holders opt in for organ donation, up a little bit during the last few years, said Jennifer Gelman, a spokesperson for the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland.
However, only about 3 percent of hospital deaths qualify for organ donation, she said.
The organization, which facilitates and advocates organ donation, often hears from people who do not want to be donors because they are fearful that doctors will not do everything they can to save their lives, Gelman said. That myth and others keep the number of organ donors from growing, she said.
If you go
The Friday, June 28, River Concert Series at St. Mary’s College of Maryland will feature highlights from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” with narrator Sheryl-Marie Dunaway and the Ballet Caliente dancers; a concerto called “Tyrannosaurus Sue” narrated by Tim Heely and featuring Bryan Bourne as trombone soloist; and Zachary Silberschlag on trumpet in Copland’s “Quiet City.” The concert starts at 7 p.m., with grounds opening at 5 p.m.