By Michael Sudhalter
Scott Bennett wakes up every morning listening to the prayer, Modeh Ani, which translates to “I give thanks.”
He originally learned it as a teenager during Greene Family Camp singalongs, but these days, it has taken on an elevated meaning for the 51-year-old Dallasite.
Bennett searches YouTube for as many versions of Modeh Ani as possible.
His affinity for the prayer is directly attributed to the “miraculous” heart transplant he received at UT Southwestern Medical Center on April 28 — the day he now refers to as his “second birthday.” He counts the number of days since the transplant.
“Modeh Ani means thanking God for another day and for your gifts and talents,” Bennett said. “I’m extremely grateful for every single day. I often use the words ‘I get to.’”
The top “I get to” for Bennett is the opportunity to continue to be a husband to his wife, Leigh (they’ve been married for 25 years); a father to his daughters, Sydney, 22, and Lindsey, 19; and a brother to Lisa and Amy.
Bennett credits his faith in God, and the prayers of his many friends, with successfully carrying him through a situation “where a lot of things had to happen” for him to survive.
“I’m convinced in the power of prayer,” Bennett said. “God played a hand in this. This doesn’t happen unless there’s a bigger power in this life.”
Bennett is especially looking forward to attending Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano.
“Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal,” Bennett said. “I’ll be more connected than I’ve ever been. Being in synagogue amongst my community means a lot to me.”
A marketing professional, Bennett has a renewed energy to shout from the rooftops, with a proverbial megaphone, to educate the public about the importance (and misconceptions) about organ donation.
“A billion dollars couldn’t buy me the heart I received,” Bennett said. “Because the donor saved my life, I plan to save hundreds of thousands of lives. I am building my own advocacy platform to share with the world the importance of organ donation.”
This is the second time Bennett has been involved in the process of a heart transplant. The first came when his father, Ralph Bennett, needed a heart transplant in 1999.
Bennett was an airport advertising manager in his late 20s at the time and his father was a 58-year-old with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is the weakening of the left ventricle of the heart. Ralph Bennett waited six months for a heart transplant.
Bennett convinced his company to utilize unused advertising space as de-facto public service announcements, encouraging organ donation. Did it result in his father’s successful heart transplant? Only God knows, but Bennett was glad to raise awareness.
“I got 16 more years with my dad because of an organ donor,” Bennett said. “I didn’t know when I was advocating for my father 24 years ago that I would need a heart transplant as well.”
Ralph Bennett, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, passed away at age 75 in February 2016.
‘A miraculous transplant’
When Bennett’s father was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Bennett was tested as well and learned that it was a genetic condition on his father’s side.
His cardiologist recommended that he have an implanted cardio defibrillator to alert him if an issue with his heart arises. Most people who have the condition do not need transplants.
The device was installed successfully and the next few years were uneventful — other than a routine changing of the battery by an electrocardiologist.
That was until a day in late October 2014 when the defibrillator went off twice. Leigh was on a mission trip to Israel and Bennett was watching his two young daughters at the time.
“My heart rate went to a level so high,” Bennett said. “The device is supposed to shock the heart back into rhythm, if it went out of rhythm. The first time you experience it, it’s like getting kicked in the chest by a donkey or horse. You don’t see it coming.”
Between 2014 and 2018, Bennett visited his cardiologist twice per year and in 2018, he switched to Dr. Justin Grodin, the medical director of the Internal Medicine Clinical Trials Unit at UT Southwestern. Grodin specializes in cardiomyopathy and has a depth of knowledge as a researcher.
Grodin eventually decided to schedule a cardiac ablation procedure, which scars heart tissue to block irregular electrical signals, for the middle of April 2023.
Bennett went on with life as usual. The weekend before the procedure, Bennett traveled to a friend’s East Texas lake house in Mount Vernon, approximately 100 miles northeast of Dallas.
Bennett and his friends were hanging out when his defibrillator went off at least a dozen times.
“My whole body went into convulsions for a few seconds,” Bennett said. “It goes off a couple of times before your heart goes back into rhythm, but it kept going off. After 12 or 13 times, most people are dead. I thought I was going to die in the backyard there.”
Bennett rushed to the Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant — a rural hospital located 15 miles east of the lake house.
He was airlifted to UT Southwestern, where doctors recommended expediting the ablation procedure.
After evaluating Bennett, the doctors decided that a heart transplant was necessary — immediately. If Bennett had had to wait any longer than 48 hours, he likely would have passed away.
“I was in the intensive care unit and I became sick with pneumonia and an infection,” Bennett said. “The doctors were concerned whether I would survive just being there. I was in really bad shape. They sedated and intubated me.”
Transplant availability is rare
There are approximately 3,700 heart transplants performed annually, with one out of every 10 organ transplants being a heart transplant.
But receiving a heart is a complicated process. There has to be an exact match of blood type, antigens and body type.
A heart can live outside the body for only four to six hours, so the transplant would have to come from Texas or a neighboring state.
Only 1% of eligible donors are a match.
“We need everyone to be an organ donor, to find the 1% — we are dealing with a very small pool,” Bennett said.
Those on the donor waiting list are classified on a scale of 1-to-7, with 1 being the most urgent. Bennett was initially classified as a 2, but the doctors filed an exception and he was raised to a 1, given the urgency of the process.
“My wife was the one who made the decision, because I was sedated and intubated,” Bennett said. “After the transplant, I opened my eyes and the doctor said, ‘You’ve been given a new heart.’ I didn’t remember anything from the previous two weeks.”
Bennett said it’s important for people to know that simply having “organ donor” on their license isn’t enough to ensure they are eligible in certain situations. He encourages people to include that information in living wills and to let their loved ones know about their plans if, God forbid, they are faced with an end-of-life scenario.
Bennett received his heart from a healthy 25-year-old. He does not know the circumstances of why the 25-year-old was on life support. He wrote a letter to the person’s family and hopes to meet them one day to express his gratitude in person.
“I’m so grateful to the donor every day,” Bennett said.
Part of post-transplant life includes taking a lot of medication, including immunosuppressants and anti-rejection medicines. Those are necessary so that the body recognizes and works in tandem with the new heart.
Bennett knows he’ll likely have to take many of those medications for the rest of his life.
But he is feeling great and has returned to normal activities. He rides a Peloton bicycle and is taking advanced swimming lessons. He walks frequently and is a regular golfer.
“Both of my daughters were at home when I was released from the hospital, and I was able to have Shabbat with them,” Bennett said.
As his health continue to improve, Bennett has speaking engagements planned to tell his story and promote organ donation. He also wants to share his new outlook in the form of a book or podcast.
As he reflects on the High Holiday season, his message is one of hope, optimism and also a sense of urgency. “Don’t wait to tell people what they mean to you. Tell them today,” he says.