The evening of the 28th day, Dr. Gary Lethco asked if he could have the cross back.
He’d given it to his son, David, to wear during games with Maryville High School’s soccer team. Now, with time growing short, Gary Lethco needed all the help he could get.
He’d suffered a heart attack in September. Over the next three months, his condition worsened dramatically. In early January, Lethco was transported by ambulance to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center for further treatment. Once there, the husband and father of two was told he would need a heart transplant to save his life. Lethco was immediately put on a 30-day waiting list for patients with the highest priority.
April 28 was the 28th day. If a suitable donor wasn’t found in the next 48 hours, Lethco would be removed from the list, his chances for survival greatly diminished.
“I said, ‘I think I’m ready to put my cross back on,’” he said, “and I said a little prayer. That next morning, we got a call to standby.”
At the 11th hour, a donor was found in Memphis. Tests quickly proved Lethco was a match.
“One day later he would have been No. 50 on the list in the Southeast,” David said.
The end result was a Father’s Day miracle Lethco, wife, Terri, and sons, Adam and David, will remember for the rest of their lives. Gary Lethco received his new heart on April 30 and is scheduled to be discharged by the weekend.
“I’d like to spend Father’s Day at home with my boys,” he said.
Sept. 13, 2010, finished not much different than any other work day, Gary said. He left his Seymour practice for the short drive home. Along the way, “I thought I had some heartburn,” he said, “some chest tightness.”
He stopped at a convenience store for a drink, but the tightness only became “more and more severe.”
“I said, ‘I know what this is; I can make it home,’” he said.
Terri was there waiting.
“He made it home,” she said. “He came in and said, ‘I’m having a heart attack, so we said prayer that he would survive it.”
They came so close to losing his dad, David said.
“If it wasn’t for how fast (emergency medical personnel) got him to the hospital, he wouldn’t have made it,” he said.
The Lethcos had good reason to fear the worst. Gary, 55, had suffered a previous heart attack in his late 30s. He’d been released from the University of Tennessee Medical Center not long after being admitted last September. By November, he was back, and, this time, his condition worsened steadily.
Gary’s weight had been steady at 170 pounds for much of his adult life. He was quickly down to 135. At one point, Terri phoned a close friend, Julie Manor, with scary news.
“Terri called me and said, ‘The doctors have given up,’” Manor said.
Lethco was eventually stabilized and, on Jan. 7, was transported by ambulance to UAB, where he would eventually have a defibrillator implanted. Medicines helped, and Terri and Gary were allowed to briefly return home. A month later, they were back, and, this time, “They said he couldn’t leave,” Terri said.
All the while, there was David to consider.
Adam is in college and largely on his own, but David was in his senior year of high school and a captain on the soccer team. The Rebels would deliver an historic season in 2011, achieving the program’s first No. 1 state ranking, a first national ranking, 16th, and a landmark, first-ever victory over state powerhouse Farragut.
An All-State forward, David was a big, big part of it all. So while Terri remained in Birmingham with Gary, David spent his senior year at the homes of teammates, the Rebels as a group closing ranks around their star.
Terri got to as many games as she could. She was there the night David put home three goals in the win over Farragut. At other times, Manor would text Gary play-by-play updates throughout the match.
“I’d say, ‘They look strong; they look tired; they look good,’” she said.
Manor went farther than simply keeping Gary informed on how David was playing. If things didn’t go well in Birmingham, she thought it important that David get news from his parents.
“I went to the principal at the high school and asked that David be allowed to keep his cell phone on at all times,” Manor said. “If bad news came, I felt he should get it from his mom or his dad.”
Manor helped with a lot of the mom stuff while Terri was away, making arrangements for everything from the prom to graduation.
“We had friends that figured out how to make it work so Gary can see it,” Terri said. “We have had just incredible support.”
Manor’s son, Josh, a Maryville teammate of David’s, did his best to simply be a friend.
“David’s a quiet-natured guy,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do at first because what do you say for something like that? I told him, if you ever need to talk, I’m here.
“He was at everybody’s house. It wasn’t just me. Everybody helped out. It was unspoken. He knew we were there if he needed us.”
His scoring leader had a lot on his shoulders this season, Maryville coach Steve Feather said.
“It’s very tough to be playing so well when so much is going on with your family,” he said.
Soccer, perhaps, gave David a sense of normalcy through it all, Feather said.
“The Lethcos are a family of faith,” he said, “and they asked for our support. I wasn’t the leader on this one. It was more David and what he wanted to do.”
At UAB, things became increasingly grave as February turned to March.
“(Doctors) said, ‘We’re going to quit checking his blood pressure because it scares everybody,’” Gary said.
After installation of the defibrillator proved unsuccessful, a transplant became Gary’s only option. It wasn’t an option Gary was sure he wanted.
“I just didn’t know if I wanted to go down that road,” he said. “I didn’t know how much time I had left. I was at peace with it.”
UAB physician Dr. Salpy Pamboukian needed a decision before Gary could be put on the waiting list for a heart. One morning, Gary said he asked Pamboukian if she’d ever seen the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
“She said, ‘Yes,’” he said. “I said, ‘Good. You’ll understand. I want to live.’”
An especially poignant part of his stay in Birmingham was the selection process for transplant recipients, Gary said. Terri and he passed a large, open waiting room one day, he said.
“We’d seen people in there frequently in tears,” Gary said.
After asking what the room was used for, Gary said he was told it was where transplant evaluations were made. When a heart becomes available, who best fits all the necessary medical requirements must first be determined. The morning of his 29th day on the list, “Other families were also there waiting,” Gary said.
Soon, there was only Gary and Terri.
“I was the only person that fit all the parameters,” Gary said. “There’s no doubt it was divine orchestration for this to click the way it did.”
Soon after, David got a message on his cell phone.
“I got a text from my dad that said, ‘Give me a call, son. I love you,’” he said.
All he knows about his new heart is the donor was 39 and the retrieval took place in Memphis, Gary said. UAB’s transplant coordinator invites recipients to write a short letter to the donor’s family if they so choose. The hospital then leaves it up to the donor’s family to initiate any further contact.
Among many things he missed the last six months was his son’s senior season of soccer at Maryville, Gary said. The elder Lethco had always loved the game, never missing one of David’s or Adam’s matches through the years, always there with his camera.
“He’d go completely out of his way just to come watch us play,” said Adam, a 2005 Maryville graduate.
Missing the 2011 season was tough, Gary said, but there would be a make-up.
Last week, David become only the fourth Rebel in school history selected to play in the Tennessee High School Soccer Coaches Association All-Star Game in Hendersonville. Only the state’s best players receive an invitation. Finally well enough to travel, Gary made the trip with Terri. David lit the place up with the first of two goals within five minutes of entering the match in a 4-0 East victory.
“It was great,” Gary said. “He got the first score of the game. This was the all-stars! I’m sure he was apprehensive. He just stole the ball, and he shot it. The first (goal) was almost like he was a little kid when he came running by.”
Gary spent the match at a distance from most the fans, wore a breathing mask and only stayed for the first half as a precaution.
“I’ve always been a very reserved person,” he said “The tears come real easy now.”
After David’s first goal, a nearby parent asked Gary what the mask was for and what had been so special about the score?
“You couldn’t imagine,” Gary told the parent, “in your wildest dreams.”