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A new heart, a deeper love: Transplant brings couple closer

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Updated: August 24, 2014 2:28AM



Jason Clarke met the love of his life by chance, in his apartment.

He found the dark-haired beauty from Minnesota sitting on his couch, a friend of a roommate. They connected instantly, dating long-distance for six months — Katie Potts in Minneapolis and Clarke in Chicago.

Then came the shortness of breath.

“It was every now and then, and then it just grew and grew,” Clarke, 31, said.

At just 29, Clarke’s heart struggled to beat. He had cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle. After a series of medications, doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital told Clarke he needed an LVAD — a left ventricle assistance device to help the heart pump blood.

Within a year, he’d need a new heart.

Everything changed. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t drive. He couldn’t live by himself.

“I moved back in with my parents. Everything was just heart-breaking about the transplant,” Clarke said.

He didn’t want Potts to see how sick he was.

“I didn’t want to scare her, and even after the first surgery I told her we’re still kind of new and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I had all sorts of different thoughts. I could have died in that first surgery. And I told her, ‘You don’t have to stick around for this. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If you want to leave, you can.’ ”

Potts refused. She came to Chicago for business and stayed weekends to be with Clarke. They stayed at downtown hotels to escape life with the parents in Portage Park.

“I knew right away after meeting Jason that he was the one that I wanted to be with. We talked every day and had several visits,” Potts said. “When he got sick I thought, this is something that is just part of life, and I want to be with this man. I’m going to be here to support him.”

A year later, Clarke’s LVAD stopped helping his failing heart pump blood. After a surgery to fix it, doctors bumped him up on the heart transplant list.

“The call” came Aug. 27, 2013.

By then Potts had followed her heart to Chicago, moving in with Clarke that summer. Clarke ordered an engagement ring just a week earlier.

Clarke raced into a coffee shop two hours before they were set to meet for lunch.

“I was like ‘Are you OK? Why are you here early?’ ” Potts said. “And he said ‘I got the call. I got the call. This is what we’ve been waiting for.’ And then we just lost it in the Starbucks. I don’t remember anything else that was happening in that Starbucks. We were the only two people in there, it felt like.”

Clarke’s entire family and Potts met him at the hospital within an hour. He’d become such a frequent patient that his doctors, nurses and coordinators came out to see him and hug him, Clarke said.

He spoke with Potts and his family before going into the operating room.

“Of course, I remember telling Katie I loved her, but my dad, I told him, ‘I’m a champion, and champions always come through in the clutch,’ ” Clarke said through tears.

Ten hours later, Clarke’s family got the good news.

“It was just like we all could finally breathe,” Potts said.

‘You picked up your
whole life’

Clarke recovered well from his transplant surgery, leaving the hospital after just six days. He had one medical bump that required another surgery for a blood clot that formed a week after his release from the hospital.

But Clarke’s surgeon, Dr. Ed McGee, director of the heart transplant and LVAD program at Northwestern, called him “a tough kid” who “learned all his medicines and got through it real quick.”

McGee performs 200 surgeries a year, but especially remembers Clarke and Potts.

“He’s the type of guy that keeps us in this business,” McGee said. “I remember his fiancee being there when he got a new heart.”

Life soon got back to normal. He returned to work as a financial planner at Edward Jones, and Potts became increasingly suspicious he’d propose.

It didn’t take long.

Just 17 days after getting his new heart, Clarke, ring in hand, asked Potts to marry him. He told her what he now calls “an elaborate lie.” They were going to brunch with his boss. The two even argued because Potts insisted they should bring a gift.

Instead, Clarke placed Potts in a horse-drawn carriage. They toured spots that meant something to their relationship: Northwestern Hospital, the hotels and restaurants they visited. Their last stop: the site of their first date, The Signature Room at the 95th inside the John Hancock tower.

“I said, ‘You moved here. You picked up your whole life.’ We just passed by these great places, and that’s when I got down on one knee and you [Potts] started crying, and I started crying,” Clarke recalled.

Potts remembers the proposal a bit differently.

“You said I was the girl you never thought you could get,” Potts said.

And on Saturday in Potts’ hometown, Clarke will be able to breathe deeper than he ever could, his new heart filled with the same love, and tell her how glad he is to be wrong about all that in a simple phrase: “I do.”

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @TinaSfon



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