02-24-2010 - CLASSMATE NEAL POPE HONORED BY THE AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION
Local attorney Neal Pope still ticking 17 years after heart transplant
"I REALLY AM ON BORROWED TIME"
Neal Pope has walked through the valley of the shadow of death - slowly, while out of breath.
In 1991, the Columbus attorney was among the most prominent lawyers in the land, featured on the cover of Newsweek for the $5.5 million settlement he’d achieved in a lawsuit over the sleep-inducing drug Halcion, which in some people caused psychotic episodes. Pope had represented a plaintiff who while on the drug shot her mother to death, not only emptying a revolver but reloading it to fire a seventh shot.
Professionally, Pope was riding high. But he wasn’t walking so well. He was suffering backache, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pains and pain radiating down his left arm. “Heart attacks sometimes don’t just happen quickly,” he said. “In my case, it went on for several days.”
He first was prescribed Percocet, a powerful painkiller, but finally he had to go to the hospital. Fast.
“I popped a Percocet and went to bed,” he said, “and the next morning, I was unconscious.”
That’s when doctors discovered Pope had blown a hole in his heart. Its left side bulged about the size of a tennis ball around an aneurysm. His heart should have been pumping about 50 percent of the blood out with each beat. It was pumping 16 percent.
Surgeons repaired the damage, but that didn’t leave Pope much of a heart.
For 18 months, he lived with it, but not well. He was always out of breath. In January 1993, he lost a lawsuit in Atlanta, representing a developer who claimed he’d lost millions building a hotel.
Pope felt like hell, and looked it: “I looked like death stalking supper, and felt like it, too,” he said.
In February 1993, he got an awful pain in his belly. His wife raced him to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where he had to undergo emergency surgery to remove his gall bladder.
He was lying in bed after that surgery when his doctor told him he needed a new heart - or a used one, in this case: a transplant. Pope went on a high-priority list for a heart transplant.
And he got one, from a 45-year-old police officer left brain dead after an accident. The transplant team examined Pope about 4 or 5 p.m.; by midnight surgeons were installing the heart.
But his troubles were not over. During the emergency gall-bladder surgery, doctors nicked a bile duct, causing a slow leak. Pope said the resulting jaundice soon turned him “yellow as a school bus.”
So just a few days after the transplant, physicians had to cut him open again to fix the bile duct.
Then he recovered. By April, he was out of the hospital, and for him the spring of 1993 was like a new life. In weeks he went from a “dead man walking” to fully functional again, he said, as if the man born in January 1939 was reborn in 1993. By July, he was back in the courtroom, arguing another big case.
He was 51 when he had his heart attack, 53 when he got a heart transplant.
Today he’s 71, and knows that without another’s sacrifice and the medical advances that have so improved treatment for heart ailments, he would be dead and buried.
He wouldn’t be sitting in the fourth-floor Synovus Centre offices of Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood, looking over the Chattahoochee River to the Russell County Courthouse where he began his career in the 1960s, arguing cases against old friends like the late Pelham Ferrell and others he since has outlived.
“I have a different attitude about the world now than I did before,” he said. “I used to think I was something special; now I realize I’m not.”
Some lawyers have inflated egos, he said. He warns younger attorneys about that: “I say to them, ‘You know, you’re not nearly as great as you think you are, and you’re certainly not as great as other people think you are, because you can be walking down the street, and in a matter of a few minutes, the whole thing comes to an end.’ ... How many people do you know who had the world by the tail and are now pushing up daisies?”
Seventeen years have passed since Pope got a second-hand heart, without which he would have never known his five grandchildren, never fought and won the court cases that followed, never had a second chance at life.
Nor a third chance after that: In June 2004, he again was under the knife at Emory, needing a quadruple bypass to reroute his blood stream around blocked arteries. At the time he was told only seven others had needed their transplanted hearts bypassed.
“Every morning I get up and I think I really am on borrowed time; I wasn’t meant to be here, so what am I going to do today to make this day special?” he said.
Over the years he got to know the staff and faculty at Emory intimately - more intimately than he had intended, probably, but it gives him a deep appreciation for what heart doctors today can do.
The ones who yet survive, anyway - Pope has outlived three of his doctors, too.
On Saturday, he’ll be honored at Columbus’ annual Heart Ball, which raises money for heart research and education. It’s a cause for which he lives, knowing so many lacking his good fortune die every year, and so many others survive, and recover, because the treatment keeps getting better.
“It’s amazing that people are alive now who 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, wouldn’t be up walking around. … With the strides they’re going to make in the future, we may see a day when nobody has to die of heart failure,” he said. “To me, that’s worth passing on to people, because we abuse our hearts, and we don’t have the necessary knowledge to protect them.”