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Book Review: “Tragedy to Triumph – The Story of Tom’s Heart,” by Janet W. Mauk and Pete Radigan

Beyond His Years
by Gene Siudut

In the mid-‘90s, Pete Radigan had a big heart.
Too big, in fact. His severe cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart, developed into Stage 4 heart failure. Pete had two options – a heart transplant or death.
Pete, like me, is a New Jersey guy. Also like me, he is a volunteer basketball coach at the New Tampa YMCA. I’ve been coaching against Pete for a few seasons. Mostly to his benefit, as I had a run of consecutive defeats to his teams until the past year or so, when my teams started coming into their own.
I remember the first time I coached against him. He walked with a bit of a limp and was bent over as if he had back problems. He certainly had a frail demeanor, but once the game started, his voice boomed across the court toward his players, the refs and anyone who would listen.
Immediately, I knew this was no frail man. He didn’t have a surplus of physical energy but whatever emanated from his insides was that of a man half his age. I didn’t like that Pete was making a good living off beating my teams at the onset. There weren’t many coaches who had a winning record against me, and Pete was making me look like a novice.
The problem was I couldn’t help but like him.
A coach needs to be an example of sportsmanship, dignity, respect and all those other wonderful coach-speak terms. And in this developmental league, winning is not as important as developing youth, but there are some coaches you just want to beat. Pete was one of those guys because he seemed to know the game so well. I liked him personally, but I wanted to shake his hand after a game and wish him better luck next time.
I think out of our first nine meetings, I only beat him twice, which irked me, but I knew my guys were developing nicely and I’d be ready for him in the near future. But that chance appeared lost when Pete disappeared for a while.
What I discovered was Pete became very sick. I knew he had general bad health, but I never knew exactly what his ailments were, only that they seemed to debilitate him.
There was even a point when we were told his situation was dire and did not know if he would make it through. Before that, all I wanted was for him to return so I could beat him. My thoughts quickly evolved to just wanting him to be able to leave the hospital.
By grace, doctors and good fortune, Pete made it out of the hospital and eventually was able to return to the sideline. I didn’t know a whole lot about his physical ordeals, but soon after his return, I was made aware of a book written by him and Janet Mauk called “Tragedy to Triumph, The Story of Tom’s Heart.”
Immediately, I was intrigued and again, a little jealous. There I was, a writer for a newspaper for 15 years who always wanted to write a book. And there was Pete. Not only was he a better basketball coach then me. He was also a published writer. I had to get to the bottom of this.
Well, you can forget about me writing any kind of book because whatever stupid observations I have in this world are insignificant compared to the life lived by Pete, his co-author Janet, and through both of them, Janet’s son, Tom.
“Tragedy to Triumph” is the story of a big heart, but not the one enlarged by Pete’s disease. The heart given to him through the tragedy of the death of 16-year-old Tom Mauk.
And it was given.
A motorcycle accident robbed Tom of his life, but through organ donation, he was able to help seven other people survive. The question of organ donation was asked of Tom’s parents, who gave that permission. They would find out that six months before he passed, Tom had remarked to his friends that if anything ever happened to him, he would want to be an organ donor.
Thankfully for Pete, who was very near to the end of his life without a transplant, the gift of life arose from Tom’s tragedy. However, that tragedy and transplant are just the beginning of this tale.
****
“Tom displayed perception beyond his years …”
On the surface, the sentence reads as complimentary. A deeper look, however, is the soul of the bitter-sweet story of Tom Mauk, who literally and figuratively lived beyond his years.
As a child of divorced parents, Tom lived the back-and-forth life many children in his situation experience who take residence in two homes. He lived with his mother most of the time but felt he needed his father in his life and made the decision, unprovoked, to pack his bags and tell his mother he was moving in with his dad.
While it was just 34 miles away, Janet was not going to take this lying down. She wanted to fight the decision, but her legal counsel let her know that a judge would likely abide by the wishes of a 13-year-old unless there was something egregious that could be proven in court.
Being a God-fearing woman, Janet trusted the Lord in the process and granted Tom his wish. Tom sensed his mother’s pain over the decision and on the way to church one Sunday, Tom told his mother, “Mom, I’m going to my father’s because I need to be with him, not because you are a bad mother.”
As readers, we know Tom’s physical life would meet with a tragic end just three years later. But this is how the book starts. It grabs you and lets you know this isn’t some sappy story about a kid who had no idea how his decisions affected people positively or negatively.
The gift of Tom’s organs brought beauty to a tragedy and his mother’s recollections of him gave that gift a face. There is a brutal honesty when discussing his struggles as a teenager and her struggles as a parent. And not to be forgotten is the simultaneous dire consequences that were assuaged when Pete received Tom’s heart.
****
When I first met my wife almost 15 years ago, one of the attractions we had to each other was our love of reading. She was an English/literature teacher at the time and we talked for hours about writers and books we loved and hated.
Since then, I’ve barely read a book. I read so much at La Gaceta, I want to get away from the written word during my free time, but I still make the attempt when the mood strikes. This has led me to start at least five books simultaneously that I haven’t made it past the first 20 pages.
This book, however, is not one of those. For the first time in my adult life, I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down and for anyone who knows me, that should be endorsement enough.
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but worth noting is the mandate this book carries. The obligation not just to register as an organ donor, but to make those wishes known.
As with anything people don’t fully understand, there is a lot of bad information out there about organ donation. Some common misconceptions include:
1. Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of organ donors
2. People believe they are too old/young to register to be a donor
3. Can’t have an open-casket funeral
4. People in bad health should not register to be a donor
5. Rich/famous people go to the top of the national transplant waiting list
Naturally, none of the above statements are true. When speaking with Pete about the misconceptions, he felt that a lot of it comes from the lack of conversations people have about death.
“Talking about organ, eye, and tissue donation is hard because it’s a discussion about what you want to happen if you die,” Pete told me. “My answer to that is simple. Seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, and one organ, eye and tissue donor can save and heal more than 75 lives. Federal law says, any eligible death, anywhere in the country, your family is going to be asked about organ, eye and tissue donation. At the worst moment of any family’s life, wouldn’t you want to know what that one last wish was? So I would say to everyone, whether you decide to be an organ, eye or tissue donor, make the decision and share the decision”
I asked Pete if he felt any obligation to Tom for the gift of his heart, as in taking care of it while also making the most of his life. He said he lives his life to the fullest every day but added he doesn’t dwell on if he’s doing too much or if he needs rest, nor does he worry about how much time he has left. “You can’t really live life that way. I truly live for the day and live, truly live each moment, each day,” he said.
But not far from his thoughts are Janet and he knows she already appreciates the good care he takes of Tom’s heart and through that care, Tom lives on.
There is a lot of good information about how to approach conversations about organ, eye and tissue donation, how to get registered and pretty much everything else you would want to know. Two good places to start, however are Donate Life America’s websites, DonateLife.net and RegisterMe.org.
Janet and Pete are especially thankful to their sponsor Biomatrix, a specialty transplant pharmacy, Donate Life America and many others who supported them through this journey.
In basketball, all I want to do is beat Pete every chance I get. In life, however, I want nothing but success for Pete, which means getting as many people to become registered donors as possible. It would also be nice to see his and Janet’s book on every coffee table in America. To make that happen, please go to Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or right to the source at www.tragedytotriumph.net.
Gene Siudut can be emailed at gsiudut@lagacetanewspaper.com

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