Second Change

updated 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

SLICING DOWN A MOUNTAINSIDE in Aspen, Dr. Robert Pensack, 44, threads his way through the gates of a slalom course. Swooping to a halt at the end of the run, he feels his heart—or at least a heart—thumping with exhilaration. Just over two years ago, the organ belonged to a young Texan. At that time, even walking down a steep slope might have killed Pensack. But there he was last month, trying out his skiing skills and winning two silver medals at the first U.S. Winter Transplant Games.

"I'm celebrating that we transplant patients are alive," says Pensack, a psychiatrist who put aside his practice in Steamboat Springs, Colo., following surgery in October 1992, to recuperate and cowrite Raising Lazarus, an account of his struggle with chronic illness, published last fall. "We've got a second chance at life."

Pensack's first chance was shadowed almost from the beginning by the specter of heart disease. When he was 4, his 31-year-old mother, Shirley, died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which she passed on to Pensack and his brother Richard, now 47. Pensack only dimly understood his mother's death, and though his father, Harvey, a financial planner, now 71, remarried a year later, Bob's childhood, in Livingston, N.J., was never the same. Dizzy spells at 17 were the first symptoms that indicated the disease was slowly choking the chambers of his heart with overdeveloped muscle tissue.

Doctors at the time confirmed that both brothers carried HCM. Four years later, Pensack, who had graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder, suffered a seizure and passed out during a touch-football game. Fueled by concern over his fragile health, he then enrolled at the university's medical school with a view toward becoming a heart surgeon. In 1975, Pensack had his first pacemaker implanted. "There is no way I'd be alive if I hadn't become a physician obsessed with my own heart," he says. "When I needed more sophisticated pacemakers before they were ready, I helped develop them."

During his second grueling year of learning to heal others, Pensack dropped out, plagued by fainting spells, attacks of arrhythmia and his own mounting panic. Depressed, he flew home to New Jersey, where, at a beach party, he met 21-year-old Abbe Singer. "There was an instant spark," says Abbe, who resolved to ignore Pensack's dubious health. "Here was a nice Jewish boy who was in medical school, driving his father's Porsche. I like to go with the positive." (Her mother went with the not-so-positive two years later, on the night before their wedding. "She said, 'Abbe, you must love him very much, because your life is not going to be as easy as I had hoped.' ")

Brimming with an unfamiliar sense of hope, Pensack returned to med school four years later, eventually switching to psychiatry when the demands of a career in surgery became too great. He even began talking about having children. The Pensacks now have two: Max, 5, and Miriam, 3. If his kids develop HCM later on, he believes "off-the-shelf" artificial hearts will have made organ transplants obsolete.

That option wasn't available to Pensack. Better pacemakers and stronger drugs weren't enough to keep HCM at bay, and in 1985 he learned from other doctors that eventually a transplant would offer his only chance for survival. His brother had already gone that route almost two years earlier, and Bob knew that an anguished wait was in store. (Currently, 3,044 people are on the national heart-transplant waiting list.)

In 1992, after a 14-month wait, the news finally came: a 20-year-old Texan had died in a car wreck. The transplant at Denver's University Hospital didn't go smoothly. "It was a train wreck almost from the word go," says Pensack's coauthor, Dwight Williams, who took notes for the book in the operating room as doctors struggled for six hours to restart the balky heart.

Since the surgery, Pensack has battled eight episodes of tissue rejection, taking massive doses of steroids that caused severe mood swings. (During one manic phase, he painted the inside of the family's garage red.) "Sometimes it's tough," says Abbe, who has been in therapy to manage her own panic attacks prompted by Bob's health problems. "But it beats the alternative."

Every day of Pensack's new life is precious, but he treasures one above all. Three months after he had received his new heart, his son wanted to verify that the old one was gone. "I gave him my stethoscope," Pensack recalls, "and held it to my chest. Max looked up and said, 'It sounds good, Dad.' I hugged him and he hugged me as tears rolled down my cheeks. That was the greatest moment in my life."

MCKIE BANE in Denver

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