Rick Shoobridge of Tennessee was ready to die.
Frankie Butch of Pulaski, Pa. — energetic dad, coach, hunter, steelworker and grandpa — wasn’t even close.
For two men and two families, tragedy and triumph would intersect March 13, 2007.
Rick had battled heart ailments for about a decade. In 2006, his Tennessee doctors said they’d done all they could and, in Rick’s words, “sent me home to die.”
He had read stories about The Cleveland Clinic. He went there, and in March 2007, doctors there put him at the top of their list for a heart transplant. He said Tennessee standards wouldn’t allow a then-66-year-old man on such a list.
Frankie Butch was doing routine work on his roof that March day, with wife Irene and a grandson on the porch below at his home on Evergreen Road.
It’s a stretch of road that could just as easily be called Butch Hill because there are a lot of Butches along there — four generations long and 130 acres around.
Frankie stepped onto a weak spot on the roof above the porch and fell to the cement below — and to his death.
At St. Elizabeth Health Center that evening, an organ-donor organization approached a family still in shock.
To Frankie Jr., his dad was a guy who worked hard and played harder. He lost his job at Sheet & Tube in 1979, but he made sure the family made it through.
There was always a game going on at the house with the brothers and the cousins, and dad was in the middle. Baseball, basketball, football and more. They fished and hunted by just walking out their back doors. No “like” about it, the land was the back of Frankie’s hand.
And at 61, it was over.
When asked the tough question about donating his organs, the family barely paused to consider.
“Half a second” remembers Frankie Jr. “My dad had a great heart — not just physically. He would have wanted to help.”
Frankie’s heart, liver, lungs and kidneys would serve others just as he longed to do in his life.
This week, seven years later, one of those served, Rick, found his way to Frankie’s home to walk the life and land of the man who gave him new life.
“I realize I got a good heart in more ways than one,” said Rick. He made the long-awaited trip with his wife, Karen, and daughter and grandson.
The families had exchanged cards and photos. They had never met face to face.
They shared their stories of pain, setbacks and celebration — tales of a man who should be there and a man who shouldn’t.
Rick’s heart ailments progressed after 2001, and in 2006, his doctors in Tennessee said there was nothing more they could do.
Rick wasn’t ready to die. After letters and requests, doctors at The Cleveland Clinic evaluated him in October 2006. They asked him to return in February 2007. But terrible weather delayed the trip for one month. When he got there in March, he was in a very weak condition. They put him atop the list for the next heart that was a match.
“[Doctors] asked me to stay two weeks. I told them I would stay one. If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die at home,” Rick said in a raspy, slow drawl perfect for any Western movie.
On his sixth night, he was lying in bed thinking of his exit that next morning.
“I was walking out of that place the next morning — if I could. The doctor said [later] I never would have made it.”
Lying there, he heard sirens coming toward the hospital. His daughter, Angie, said where he was in the facility, he could not have heard anything. But for seven years, he’s told the same story.
He speaks vividly about praying to die.
And then, with a twinkle, delivers:
“But others were praying harder the other way.”
Fifteen minutes after Rick stopped hearing the sirens, his doctor called him.
“He says, ‘Do you still want that heart?’” Rick said. “I never thought I would get one. I’m 66 years old. Why would they give a heart to me? Somebody else [younger] can get a whole lot more use out of it.”
With his family around him and encouraging the decision, Rick said yes. Frankie’s heart became his.
Shortly after midnight, the heart was connected to Rick, and it took off right away. He’s now seven years down the road from when Tennessee doctors ran out of options. He made sure to visit those doctors to let them know he was still going.
“He was surprised to see me,” Rick laughed of his cardiologist.
But he really wanted to know the man whose heart he had.
In Pulaski, Irene had a similar yearning.
The families said the policy of the donor agency is for families to wait three months before any kind of contact, and that the first contact goes through the agency.
But her family had a bigger waiting issue: recovery.
“It was horrible,” said Frankie’s wife, Nancy, about the family’s aftermath.
Irene could not go back to her beloved front porch. It’s where they would always sit. And it’s where she tried desperately to use CPR to save Frankie’s life after his fall. She retreated to her back deck.
Sons Frankie Jr. and Dan retreated as well.
For all their lives — from kids to adults — there wasn’t a day that Mom, Dad and two sons did not talk at least once. The two Frankies shared the same employer, and their shifts overlapped. They had breakfast together when they occasionally had the same shift.
Dan, longtime lead singer of the local band Haymaker, put on a fa ßade of being the best at coping.
“It seemed everyone else was always breaking down, so I wouldn’t. But if you ask my wife [Wendy], she would tell you I was depressed for two years,” Dan said.
They remember all the firsts in life they encountered without Dad. For Frankie Jr., his only hunting buddy was Dad.
“That first walk in the woods without him was hard,” said Frankie Jr.
He didn’t even prep for hunting. Nancy did.
“I got his license, washed his clothes, laid it all out for him, and said ‘Are you going to go?’”
Time heals, and it did too for the Butches.
Irene got back to her front porch.
There, in her quiet times, she began to have great conversations again with her husband.
“I would talk to him about all things,” she said. She began to wonder about his heart.
“I said, ‘Frankie — they don’t owe me anything. But we donated your organs to give someone a second chance, and I’d just like to know how they’re doing.’”
The very day she said that (“Honest, Todd, I’m not lying”) she went to her mailbox.
Inside was an envelope from the donor agency. Inside that envelope was another.
She opened that, and a bluebird stared back at her. Around it were the words:
“If you could hear the thank yous in my heart.”
It was from Rick.
Last week, the families touched for the first time.
A 10-hour visit Tuesday ended with a big family dinner at a restaurant — Rick and Karen picked up the tab.
It was peace and comfort for all, they said.
And likely, too, for Frankie.
Irene talked to him the day after.
“I said to Frank, ‘I think you would like Rick. I would rather have had you here, but we met a good family here this week,’” Irene said.
“I think God picked the right person.”
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.