San Francisco Fire Investigator Celebrates New Heart with Stair Climb Event

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JESSICA A. YORK
Vallejo Times-Herald

The 13 steps Anthony Robinson climbs to his San Francisco fire investigation bureau office once seemed to take an eternity.

But just two weeks ago, for a fundraiser, the San Francisco fire captain and former paramedic ascended 52 flights of stairs -- with more than 1,100 steps -- in just 22 minutes.

He never could have done it without the new heart he received in May, he said in an interview.

"That was a moment for me," Robinson said of climbing to the top of San Francisco's Bank of America. Then he spoke of other post-transplant ventures like taking saxophone lessons and going to see Cirque de Soleil for the first time.

Robinson, friends say, was already an upbeat and talkative person. But now, he has taken his renewed chance at life and is appreciating the details, concentrating less on the time. He's also telling others about the importance of organ donation.

He reflected on the past year with his new heart, and the earlier 17 years of pain and weakness. He had lived mostly in denial that the day would ever come for a life-saving surgery as a result of his cardiomyopathy.

Until his condition could no longer be ignored, said Robinson.

"There were 13 steps that I used to walk up, and I knew how my day was going to be based on how I felt when I got to that last step," said Robinson, of Benicia.

Robinson's illness, and the weakness that came with it, had progressed by inches.

Then, in February 2010, after several back-to-back visits to the emergency room, Robinson entered a Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. He emerged in June from a Stanford Hospital with his new heart.

At 3 a.m. on Mother's Day, Robinson received "the phone call" -- news delivered by an ICU nurse that he would receive a new heart that day.

Robinson's donor, he would later learn, was a 39-year-old father and youth minister named Danny from Eureka, who died of a brain hemorrhage. Danny had explained to his daughters the importance of helping others with his organs when the time came, Robinson said.

Prior to the surgery, he had spent four months confined to a hospital bed, much of that time with a tiny metal "fan" implanted in his failing heart, hooked to a bedside machine.

LaMonica Esver, his girlfriend, said she sat through the toughest of procedures, taking notes and asking questions about the technical procedures to keep Robinson engaged and herself informed.

"My girlfriend, she's a rock," Robinson said. "And she told me that this was a journey.. She said ... you're going to have to take all these steps, and they're painful steps. And so I just took the steps."

Esver, a technology auditor, said she focused on the silver linings, but accepted that everything may not have turned out well for Robinson.

While wondering if he would die before a heart was found, Robinson said it was difficult to have to hope for a tragedy to save his life.

"Initially, it's just hard to fathom, the only way I'm going to survive is someone has to die. It's a two-edged sword," said Robinson, whose profession involves saving lives. "You try not to wish for someone to die. But you don't want to die. So you just wait and you wait and you wait."

Gaining a new, healthy "A-plus" heart, Robinson said, made all the difference in the world.

"I could tell the moment I opened my eyes that I was different, I could tell the difference," Robinson said. "It's like, for the last five years I had been running a race, constantly. I always felt tired. (But) when I opened my eyes, I was relaxed. That was the beginning, I thought, of a new life."

San Francisco city and county Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, who joined the department only a year before Robinson, said that he is a valued member of the department.

"I saw him walk into to work in October or November last year and it brought me to tears, that he had been through all he had been through and just a short few months later, he was walking back in to work," Hayes-White said.

Before he could return, however, Robinson faced a painful recovery.

After so many months confined to a hospital bed, Robinson had to relearn to do even the simplest things -- grasping objects, brushing his teeth, walking.

"I'm 6-2, and I think I weighed 130 pounds. I normally would weigh about 180. I was nothing. I was just skin and bones, laying in a bed," Robinson said.

Now, Robinson has returned to his former health, and recently appeared before the Vallejo City Council as an ambassador for the California Transplant Donor Network when it approved a proclamation declaring April as the DMV / Donate Life California Month.

"I wouldn't change anything about the journey," Robinson said. "I would suggest it to anyone, if you need it. It opens your eyes to the little things in life."

For more information on organ donations, visit www.ctdn.org online.

Copyright 2011 The Times-Herald
All Rights Reserved
April 18, 2011

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