On the morning of April 1, Marcia Adams sat up and asked for some honey in her tea. It was a typical request from the award-winning cookbook author and host of five PBS series on mid-western cuisine, but this was no ordinary Sunday breakfast in bed. Adams was in the intensive care unit of Lutheran Hospital of Indiana in Fort Wayne after undergoing a heart transplant two days earlier.

Diagnosed with heart disease in 1994, Adams had learned in February 2000 that she had only a 10 percent chance of living five more years without a new heart. She was poised to receive one two months ago, but after Adams, 65, was prepped for surgery, she was told that the heart promised her had turned out to be ravaged by infection. "The last few weeks Marcia was more depressed and her condition had deteriorated," says her husband, Dick, 73, who exchanged I-love-yous with his wife before she was wheeled off to the operating room on March 30. "Here was an opportunity to give her another 5 to 10 years of energy."

The four-hour procedure—filmed by a PBS camera crew—also turned out to be the latest chapter in Adams's ongoing campaign to educate those who believe, as she once did, "that heart disease is a man's disease." In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among U.S. women, killing more than a half million each year.

Footage of Adams's surgery will be used in the second part of a documentary, to air next year, about women and heart disease. Part one, the half hour special Marcia Adams: Heart to Heart, is currently in reruns on PBS stations and is tied in to her seventh book, Heart to Heart, which mixes her personal journal entries with heart-healthy recipes. "I feel it's my responsibility to teach," she says, "so other women won't be left as uninformed as I was."

Certainly, Adams, a lifelong jogger before her illness, never imagined she would one day be tethered to a portable oxygen tank and an IV tube containing the heart-stimulating drug Dobutrex. "The physical dependency has probably been the most difficult thing for me," she admits. She also finds it hard to fathom how she became ill in the first place. Her father, Thomas Gabrill, a farmer, and her brother, Gordon, a high school teacher, both died of congestive heart failure in their 50s (her mother, Esther, a teacher, died of kidney failure at 92), so Adams has always adhered to a low-fat, high-fiber diet. "The food I cook did not do this," she insists.

But in 1994, just months after recovering from an upper-respiratory infection, Adams became breathless while climbing a hill near her Fort Wayne home. Hospital tests revealed that her heart was pumping at only 50 percent capacity.

Her doctors suspect that the respiratory virus had attacked her heart muscle, causing it to deteriorate to the point at which its "squeezing function was unable to keep up with her body's demand for blood flow," explains Adams's cardiologist Dr. Michael Mirro. But with her new heart and the help of immunosuppression drugs, Adams has an 80 percent chance of surviving five years (which is the typical rate). "Her prognosis is excellent," says Dr. Joseph Ladowski, the lead transplant surgeon. "She should be able to get around without [machines] and be a lot less fatigued."

Adams has never lacked for spirit. Growing up near Angola, Ind., she whipped up her first dish—a brown sugar pie—at age 3. "I came out of my mother's womb holding a whisk!" she says jokingly. After dropping out of Ohio's Bowling Green University and following a marriage that ended in divorce in 1967, she was content to cook at home, fixing meals for her current husband, Dick Adams, a businessman she wed in 1969, his son Larry, now 44, and Gerard, her son from her first marriage. Then in 1982, on a lark, she entered the National Chicken Cooking Contest—and won the $10,000 grand prize. At 45, "Marcia realized there was money in this cooking business," says Dick, his wife's manager.

After a stint as a food columnist for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Adams published Cooking from Quilt Country: Hearty Recipes from Amish and Mennonite Kitchens in 1988. The book won several awards and led to Adams's first PBS special.

But in 1989, just as Adams was getting her first taste of success, Gerard was diagnosed as manic depressive. Three years later he was killed in a motorcycle accident at 31. "He was so bright and handsome," says Adams. "I was wrestling with a terrible grief." Her work, she says, "kept me centered."

Just as it has through her battle with heart disease. Although the illness forced her to end her last cooking show in 1999 (like the others, it still airs in reruns) and prevented her from leaving home except to visit the doctor, Adams has stayed in touch with fans via her Web site, www.marciaadams.com.

Now the transplant surgery "opens up so many things to us," says her husband. "We'd love to travel, see friends, go to the theater, work in our garden." Adams's appetite seems on the rebound already. Asked by a niece if she would like a postop treat of Dutch apple pie and peanut butter, the patient replied with a heartfelt, "Oh, yes!"

Galina Espinoza
Barbara Sandler in Fort Wayne

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Sandler.