Essence of Giving

Merrill Lynch's Andy Heath underwent surgery to give 60% of his liver to his broker friend Mike Gagen. Sadly, the transplant was abandoned. In the early morning hours of July 21, 2000, two stockbrokers lay in adjacent operating rooms inside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In one room, surgeons prepare Andy Heath for a procedure that will result in the removal of almost 60% of his liver.

Merrill Lynch's Andy Heath underwent surgery to give 60% of his liver to his broker friend Mike Gagen. Sadly, the transplant was abandoned.

In the early morning hours of July 21, 2000, two stockbrokers lay in adjacent operating rooms inside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In one room, surgeons prepare Andy Heath for a procedure that will result in the removal of almost 60% of his liver. In the next room, another team prepares Mike Gagen for transplant surgery.

If everything goes as planned, a 7-inch section of Heath's liver will be functioning inside Gagen, his buddy, by lunch time.

“I did this with as much conviction as I have ever done anything in my life,” says Heath, a Merrill Lynch broker in Leawood, Kan. “I promise you, right up until the second they put me under, I never had a second thought.”

Heath's determination was surprising, especially since he and Gagen were complete strangers just a year and a half earlier. They met at the beginning of a two-year coaching program at the Center for Excellence in New York. Gagen was an independent broker in Butler, Pa., using Commonwealth Financial Services as his broker/dealer.

“We were assigned partners we were supposed to call on a daily basis, five days a week, when we got back to our branches,” Heath says. “You get to know someone very well that way.”

After a year's worth of conversations, Gagen told Heath he was suffering from a chronic liver condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis and would probably need a liver transplant.

“I didn't really know all the details, but I told Mike I wanted to be on the list of potential donors,” Heath says.

Gagen was touched. Family members were lined up as volunteers, so it was unlikely Heath would wind up the donor.

“As it turned out, neither of Mike's brothers had the same blood type, so they couldn't be tested, and his sister had some physical problems that prevented her from being tested,” Heath says. The two candidates who qualified — Gagen's wife and her sister — were both rejected during the final stage.

“All of a sudden Mike ran out of options within his family,” Heath says.

So after three grueling days of tests, doctors gave Heath their stamp of approval as a donor. Surgery was scheduled for July 21.

Inside the hospital that morning, Heath remembers waking up with a 17-inch scar across his abdomen and asking, “How's Mike?”

The answer was devastating. Surgeons discovered that Gagen had inoperable gall bladder cancer. They abandoned the transplant and stitched up both men without taking any of Heath's liver. “My surgeon was in tears when he told me,” Heath says.

Gagen passed away on Friday, Feb. 2, 2001 — the same weekend that his coaching class with Heath graduated.

Heath's health is almost back to normal, but something is different about his perspective. “I'm not the same man,” he says.

What did he learn? “It's the absolute realization that everything we do — even the smallest things that nobody notices — is important.”

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