Miracle of Life

updated 08/14/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN FATHER DALTON DOWNS finished his address on Sun., May 1, 1994, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. For four months, Downs, rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in southeast Washington, had suffered dizzy spells, short breath and chest pains. Now he felt compelled to tell his congregation his trouble: He had a degenerative heart defect—and without a transplant, he would surely die. "The hardest part," recalls Downs, 59, "was that everyone wanted to do something, and all I could say was, 'Pray' "

For one woman, sitting alone in a back pew, the priest's message hit especially hard. When Dawn Alexander visited her mother's home later that morning, the attractive 38-year-old assistant drugstore manager was visibly shaken. She had attended St. Timothy's since childhood, growing up in nearby Hillcrest Heights, Md., the oldest of three children of James Litman, an investigator for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Barbara, a nurse at Washington Hospital Center. Downs, a native Nicaraguan who had been a priest in Cleveland before coming to Washington, had impressed Alexander as a sensitive, caring man. She recounted his situation, her mother recalled, saying, "If I had two hearts, I'd give him one."

It was a promise she would ultimately keep. On May 6 of this year, Alexander returned home from church and lay down to rest. Moments later her daughter Shae, 9, found her vomiting on the bed and ran outside to tell her father. By the time Phillip, 41, a warehouse clerk, entered the bedroom, Dawn had lost consciousness. At Greater Southeast Community Hospital doctors delivered a grim diagnosis. A cerebral aneurysm had caused massive bleeding and eventually sent Dawn into a coma. Her chance for survival was slim. "I just kept praying things would change, says Phillip.

For the next four days, while Dawn was kept alive on life-support equipment, her family sat by her bed—along with Downs. On May 10, doctors pronounced Dawn brain-dead. As various family members, including her husband and her parents, sat in the hospital waiting room, a member of the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium approached. He asked if the family wished to donate Dawn's organs. Her mother, remembering Dawn's pledge, asked if they could specify a recipient. Told yes, her mother suggested Downs, who was then sitting at the other end of the room, oblivious to the conversation. The family agreed. He was, says her father, "the ideal recipient."

Downs—still unaware of the family's decision—drew them around Dawn's bed and led a final prayer. At the end, her father lingered for a last goodbye. Avoiding the tubes that crisscrossed her face, he leaned over and kissed her. "You've had 38 good and happy years," he recalls saying. "You should be happy."

Downs returned to St. Timothy's, where at 2:30 p.m., his beeper went off. When he dialed back, transplant specialist Roberto Anzeck told him, "Congratulations. You have a heart." Downs was overwhelmed. But his elation flat-lined when he learned the heart was Dawn's. Yes, he knew it was almost a miracle that their blood types and heart sizes matched, but "it was just overwhelming," he says. "My feelings were very muddled." His wife, Ana, 49, was "elated," even though she knew the danger—about 8 percent of all heart transplant patients die within one month. "My husband is very religious," says Ana. "His faith kept us going."

At 6 p.m. the couple drove the 12 miles from their home in College Park, Md., to Georgetown University Medical Center, where they were joined by their son James, 27, an art school student. (Another son, Roberto, 21, called from Boston University.) At 10 p.m. heart surgeon Dr. Robert Hannan and a team of doctors drove to Greater Southeast hospital to retrieve the heart. It was placed in a protective solution, insulated and further protected in a Styrofoam container. Roughly 2 l/2 hours later, Hannan took Alexander's unbeating heart, cooled to 4°C, and placed it in Downs' chest. By 5:45 a.m.—about five hours after it started—the operation was complete. In the waiting room, 12 parishioners had conducted an all-night prayer vigil. Says Barbara Wardlaw: "I believe that a miracle happened."

Out of the hospital within eight days, Downs has recovered swiftly. (Two people who received Alexander's kidneys are also doing fine.) Downs spends 30 minutes each day on a treadmill in his basement, and although he cannot play his beloved tennis right now, he can drive his jeep. He thinks constantly of Alexander and the blessing of his own survival. "The lesson is that we need to be good stewards of what God has given us," says Downs. "And we need to be willing to share that with others."

ROCHELLE JONES in Washington

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