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Erik Compton: Matters of the Heart

April 2, 2014

By Doug Milne, PGA TOUR

(photos by: Daniel Gilbert)

Editor's note: April is National Donate Life Month, to learn how you can register to become an organ, eye and tissue donor, please visit donatelife.net.

HOUSTON- Erik Compton’s story isn’t exactly a new one. He’s the PGA TOUR grinder who, through transplantation, got - not one – but two new hearts. This isn’t that story. This is the story of Erik Compton, the guy who gave his heart away.

Yesterday marked the start of National Donate Life Month, a month-long initiative to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to celebrate those impacted by the gift of organ donation.

It’s a special month for Erik, but with his kind of history, every month, week, hour, day and second is special. What’s also special is for him to give a little of himself, especially to those who know.

At a place called Nora’s Home in Houston, Texas it’s all about the wait. There, the sound of a phone ringing is sometimes the chime of life. Many times, it means a donor is coming forward.

Nora's Home was founded by Doctors Osama and Lillian Gaber, both of whom specialize in transplantation services, in memory of their daughter Nora, who was killed in a tragic automobile accident at the age of seven. Nora’s legacy did not end with her death. Her organ donations helped several critically ill children and fueled the creation of Nora’s Home, a place for pre-transplant and post-transplant patients and their families to stay while receiving treatment at any of the Texas Medical Center transplant centers.

In town for this week’s Shell Houston Open, Compton took time to pay a visit to Nora’s Home on Monday. At a home of his own of sorts, Compton was where his heart was. When common denominators link people, for better or worse, communication takes on a life of its own. It’s a uniting which is cryptic to the outside world. A look in the eye, embrace or even the shift in one’s posture, it speaks to those who know. And Erik knows. It can be tough, though, and always requires a balancing act. But these days, Compton’s heart is always big enough to go around.

“It’s not easy to always go back and put myself in the situation,” Compton admitted. “It’s not that I put a wall up, but I have to keep myself from vulnerable positions. When you do this during a tournament week, you have one side where you see how serious it is for these patients, of which I was one. But then you have to compete at a high level. That’s the emotional roller coaster I go through. When a patient comes up to you, they don’t want to hear you. They want to be heard. Hearing their stories is tough. But, everyone needs to be heard. That’s how you move forward.”

In the case of transplantation, however, moving forward is too often at the mercy of others and out of the individual’s hands. Erik knows about the highs and lows of waiting. Following a year and a half wait for his first transplant, the proverbial ring came. And went. The potential donor’s mind changed.

“The second time, I was sick,” he said. “I was a kid. I was super nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. They were going to cut me open, take my heart out and put in a new one. It’s like that for most people in life. For me to say it’s going to be ok is hard, because it’s that person going through it this time. Even though I have been there twice, it’s hard. I just try to give of myself the best I can and listen.”

“It’s a tribute to Nora’s Home to have someone like Erik come here,” said Kayla Lehmann, Nora’s Home Executive Director and past transplant patient. “I’ve followed him. He probably has no idea the inspiration he has given to people like me. I used to sit on the sofa, suffering from kidney failure and wondering if I get a transplant, will my life ever be the same. There are drugs, recovery efforts and the fear of rejection. But, then you see Erik. He’s someone who is so healthy and a leader in a major professional sport. He probably has no idea how much he’s inspiring others to lead healthy lives.”

“It’s very inspirational to have him here,” said Gabbi Gomez, mother to a seven-year-old awaiting a transplant at Nora’s Home. “Wally is on his journey to a transplant, so it’s nice to have people come in and give hope. Wally is only 7 years old, but I can see the hope this kind of thing brings him.”

“It’s unbelievable. This whole place gets its energy from the people who give their time, thoughts and resources to make it happen,” said Dr. Osama Gaber, transplant surgeon and Director of The Methodist Hospital J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center. “For Erik to be here just means a lot to everyone, not just me, but all those who are awaiting a transplant.”

A day later, on Tuesday, Compton was one of four PGA TOUR members who were joined by four players from the Houston Texans and four kids from The First Tee Greater Houston for the Shell Houston Open Junior Golf Skills Challenge.

Erik Compton with Anna King.

Among those in the gallery watching was Anna King, a 13-year-old awaiting a heart transplant. She also touts herself to be Compton’s biggest fan. King and Compton first met via satellite on FOX News in May of 2012. The two had the opportunity to meet in person for the first time at last year’s Shell Houston Open.

“When I was first diagnosed, some friends sent me a link to his website,” King said. “I read his story and was so inspired by him. I learned that despite all of what he went through, he was able to still live a healthy and active life. I started playing golf as a way to continue being competitive. Erik has been a huge motivator to keep playing the game.” Last week marked the two-year anniversary of her start on the waiting list.

“Erik has been such an inspiration to her,” said Anna’s father Joe King. “He has shown her that she can remain competitive, active and go for everything she wants. He gives her something to focus on and feel like it’s not all that bad.”

Beginning tomorrow, Erik Compton will give all of his heart to try and win this year’s Shell Houston Open and earn the last spot into next week’s Masters Tournament. There’s the balance in his heart. And as he does, there will be a lot of people hoping with all of their heart for the same outcome. But, win or lose, this heart of his – his third, is always with them. They are the ones who know. And he’ll always share that heart and take them with him, wherever he may go.     

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