The Heartsick Poet
As Dean Young celebrates the publication of a new collection, the wait continues for his organ transplant
There are two things that never leave Dean Young's side – his mobile phone and an odd-looking machine that resembles a piece of carry-on baggage, replete with tubes and amplified sound. Any day, or week, or month, or – God forbid – year, a call could come in on Young's phone that will send him and his wife flying out the door on the way to free themselves from this peculiar machine, its noise, and its assortment of tubes.
Young, a poet who teaches at the University of Texas, is on the waiting list for a heart transplant. Under normal circumstances, Young and his wife, Laurie Saurborn, who is also a writer, might be popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly to celebrate this month's release of his new poetry collection, Fall Higher (Copper Canyon). "I have a special feeling for this book," he says, thumbing through an early release that he's laying eyes on for the first time. The poems, most of them written three years ago, have a different "kind of music" to them. Writing, he says, usually comes easily for him. But he's had a few other distractions that have taken up his time.
He has spent the last four months tethered to a biventricular assist device, a mobile apparatus that weighs about 50 pounds and stands roughly 18 inches high. If you have a "pissant" heart like Young's (his words), the BiVAD is a 24/7 necessity. Strangely enough, even Dick Cheney, the famously unpopular former vice president, has a stronger heart than the popular poet. Like Young, Cheney also has an implanted "assist," but only on one side of his heart. "Mine is on both sides," says Young, cheerfully one-upping the war hawk.
Trying to negotiate every daily task with a clunky machine is an enormous hassle. "It's like taking a mower with you, or a vacuum cleaner, wherever you go," Young says, raising his voice slightly above the rhythmic tick-tick of the BiVAD. "You get into bed, you try to bathe, you go to the grocery store – you have to take the vacuum cleaner with you."
"And the backup vacuum cleaner," Saurborn adds, pointing to the spare across the room.
"In case this one goes on the fritz," Young explains.
For all its faults, the machine serves as Young's lifeline. The BiVAD keeps the right ventricle of his heart pumping blood to his lungs, and the left ventricle pumping blood to his body – essentially performing the work his heart is not able to do.
Young is the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at UT, a position he has held since 2008. His is a joint appointment between the Michener Center for Writers and the English Department. He's currently on sabbatical, but he had not planned to spend his time tied to a machine. The original blueprint had him working on another book in New England, where Saurborn was enrolled in a poetry writing program at the University of Massachusetts. Those plans – any plans, for that matter – are on hold until Young gets his health situation straightened out.
Young and Saurborn married in November, and since then they have become intimately familiar with the heart, more so than most couples. Ten years ago, Young was diagnosed with a condition called idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. "I was noticing that after I'd go for runs, my heart would speed up for awhile," says Young, sitting in the couple's living room in their home east of campus. The couple's dog, a lovable mixed breed named Chloe, takes up half the sofa, where she is sleeping. "I would sometimes wake in the night and my heart was just racing." After his diagnosis, Young's health headed downhill, but he responded to drug therapy and was able to exercise and do everything he wanted to do, until about two years ago. That setback slowed him down, but he was able to keep going until late last year.
In early December, he was admitted to Seton Medical Center. "His organs began shutting down and the doctors had to move quickly on the BiVAD surgery," Saurborn says. By then, Young was moved into the "1A" slot on the organ transplant waiting list, a classification reserved for the most critically ill patients. Christmas and New Year's passed before Young was able to go home. Then it was back to the hospital for clots, followed by a return to Seton for an infection. Late last month, another infection set in, but luckily Young didn't have to be admitted to the hospital.
As of March 25, there were 451 candidates in Texas on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and 3,188 in the nation. Those who follow organ transplant trends know there is a severe drought of organ donors in the country. Patients in Austin are in a region that includes two other large urban areas – Houston and San Antonio – making the process all the more competitive for a small number of organs.
Heart transplants are not cheap. The surgery alone can cost about $750,000, and not even the primo health insurance plans pick up the entire tab. The necessary post-op care and medications can range from $2,000 to $5,000 per month, according to the Memphis, Tenn.-based National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that helps transplant candidates raise money to pay for transplant-related expenses.
Toward that end, Young's friends and former students will gather Friday, April 8, for a reading and reception in the poet's honor. Roger Reeves, a student of Young's who graduated from the Michener Center last year and is completing his doctorate in English, is organizing the reading, which will feature more than a dozen writers from UT and beyond, including Georgia, Massachusetts, California, and North Carolina.
Reeves says he took an instant liking to Young when Young visited UT three years ago for his "job talk" with faculty members and students. At the time, Young was teaching in the Iowa Writers Workshop. Reeves credits Young with helping him find his voice as a poet. An African-American, Reeves says he struggled for years trying to fit whatever mold other writing teachers expected him to fit. But Young told him: "'Just write whatever you want to write.' That was huge for me," says Reeves.
One of Young's closest friends, Berkeley, Calif., writer Joe Di Prisco, will be reading at the event. "He has done more for me, professionally and personally, than I could ever do for him," Di Prisco wrote in an email."The fact is, we cannot afford to lose Dean. His friends, his students, his colleagues, his legions of loyal readers – we all need him."
Poets who want to write also want to eat, and to do that, a good many poets end up as teachers. Fortunately for Young, teaching is something he enjoys. "My life has been pretty blessed," he says. "I've had really good teaching jobs for over 25 years, and I've had great students." And the more he teaches, he says, the more he learns. "One of the great boons to teaching in such a prestigious program [as Michener] is you really get to glimpse what the poetry of the future will be."
At least a couple of Young's former students, Reeves included, will be among those who read at Friday's event. If he feels okay, Young says, he'd like to attend. Going anywhere outside of his home, with all his accoutrements, can be quite grueling, but he also feels awkward being seen with his constant companion, the BiVAD. And he's a bit embarrassed about all the fuss being made over him.
"Hopefully," he said last month. "I'll be in the hospital – or out, with a new heart." What keeps Young and Saurborn optimistic is that the BiVAD is only temporary, that there's a cardiology team at Seton who are old hands at transplants, and that they could be opening up Young's chest with an hour's notice and planting a brand-new, healthy heart.
"They want to transplant me – they really do," says Young, admiring the "cowboy" spirit of this particular team of cardiologists. "They want it to be a very good heart so that I do well and make them look good, which I intend to do."
A reading and reception/fundraiser for Dean Young is Friday, April 8, 6pm, at the Austin Museum of Art (823 Congress). Online donations can be made at www.transplants.org/donate/deanyoung.