Tar Heel body, Georgia heart: Salisbury resident reflects on life 20 years after heart transplant

  • Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:01 a.m.
Claude Burnham reflects on his life 20 years after receiving a transplanted heart from a donor in Georgia. Photo by Jon C. Lakery, Salisbury Post.
Claude Burnham reflects on his life 20 years after receiving a transplanted heart from a donor in Georgia. Photo by Jon C. Lakery, Salisbury Post.

SALISBURY — Claude Burnham has always bled Carolina blue, but his heart turned Georgia red in 1993.

When the Salisbury resident suffered his fifth heart attack in February of that year, doctors warned another attack would damage the vital organ beyond repair.


But it was likely inevitable.

“I knew I would have another attack, and that news was so depressing,” Burnham said. “My wife said I gave everybody I came into contact with hell, I was so depressed.”

When it happened that summer, Burnham was immediately added to the transplant list.

Following the attack, he went back home for about a month. His wife, Bert, a registered nurse, managed his care.

But he ended up back at Carolinas Medical Center on life support.

Machines kept him alive for about two months before a heart became available.

“The Halloween witch brought me the heart,” Burnham said during a recent interview at his Hidden Creek home. “I got the new heart somewhere around midnight Nov. 1.”

Burnham said the only thing he knows for sure about the donor is that he or she lived in Georgia.

“We assumed it was a student at the University of Georgia,” he said. “The doctor happened to be a graduate of UGA, and he told me he put a good Georgia heart inside of me.”

But the heart wasn’t so good at first. One side wasn’t pumping, which meant Burnham had to go back on life support.

“It didn’t work for five days,” he said “That damn Georgia bulldog got in there, sat down and wouldn’t do anything in this Tar Heel body.”

Bert said it was scary watching her husband, whom she married just two years before, lying in a hospital bed.

“I told him to shape up,” she said. “He had promised me 30 years.”

Life after transplant

Burnham’s life didn’t exactly return to normal following the life-saving transplant.

Twenty years later, he still has to down about 30 pills a day to prevent organ rejection, ward off infection and manage blood pressure.

“That’s the price you pay,” Burnham said. “You take one medicine for something, and that creates something else.”

Burnham has battled depression since his first heart attack in 1978.

“I’m on depression medicine now. Having a heart attack is a very emotional thing,” he said. “Even today I tear up just talking about it.”

When depression strikes, Burnham said he does his best to escape it.

“I don’t sit and think about it,” he said. “I get up and do something to take my mind off it. I find a way to deal with it as it comes up.”

Burnham continues to go for regular check-ups with his cardiologist.

He also sees a primary-care doctor and dermatologist every six months because his medicines make him more susceptible to skin cancer.

Immediately following the surgery, Burnham spent a week at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte before going to Blowing Rock with Bert to recover.

“I knew if we came home I would be bombarded with company,” he said. “I would have to wear a mask, and they would have to wear a mask. I just didn’t want to deal with that.”

For a while, Burnham slept only three hours a night, from midnight to 3 a.m.

“I was on such strong doses of Prednisone that I couldn’t sleep, so I spent the night planning everybody’s life,” he said. “After a while, my wife would just say ‘Put it on the list.’ That was her favorite expression.”

When the couple made it back to Salisbury, one of their first dinners out was with Reid Leonard, resident director for Piedmont Players Theatre.

“It was literally one of the happiest days I’ve ever had,” Leonard said. “Before the heart transplant, getting out of a chair was this huge task. He would be totally winded, and it was hard for him to take.

“It was incredible to see the transformation.”

Even though Burnham was in much better shape following the transplant, his life never quite returned to the way it was before the procedure.

He had to back off work in order to alleviate stress, which interferes with heart health.

As the owner of Rowan Temporary Services, he had often put in more than 50 hours a week and took work home with him.

“I don’t handle stress very well,” he said. “I have a type A personality.”

Burnham’s diet has also changed significantly.

“We eat mostly fresh,” Bert said. “We avoid as much prepackaged stuff as we can. It’s just sensible eating.”

The couple have also completely cut out red meat, pork or lamb.

“It’s just chicken and fish,” Bert said.

Burnham kicked smoking back in the ’80s following his first heart attack.

The only real lifestyle change he’s struggled with is getting exercise.

“That has been a real issue between him and his cardiologist,” Bert said. “I’ve threatened to get him a dog.”

Burnham said people should quit smoking, eat healthy and stay fit if they want to avoid going down the same road he’s traveled.

“Don’t do a I do, do as I say,” he said.

February is American Heart Month.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

The American Heart Association recommends people follow the “Simple 7,” which includes getting active, controlling cholesterol, eating better, managing blood pressure, losing weight, reducing blood sugar and stopping smoking.

Still having fun

Burnham hasn’t let the constant monitoring of his heart keep him from doing the things he loves.

“He has a good attitude,. It’s just keep on keeping on,” Bert said.

The couple got involved with Piedmont Players when the group still performed at Catawba College.

“They were looking for somebody to play a German art collector, and somebody told the director to call me,” he said. “So I played a German art collector with a Southern voice … It was interesting.”

Since then, Burnham has continued to act.

“I’ve done musicals, but I don’t know why because I can’t sing,” he said.

He recently played Boo Radley’s older brother in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“He was so proud because he actually had a line,” Leonard said. “He was quite remarkable.

“Claude is always noticeable anytime he’s in a show because he’s interesting on stage.”

Burnham’s favorite role came in the 2007 production of “One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“That was the most fun show,” he said. “I don’t mind being cast as the insane person. It fits in with my character,” he said with a chuckle.

Burnham said he enjoys acting.

“It makes me feel good,” he said. “The audience appreciates it when you do something on your own to enhance the character.”

Leonard said the Burnhams also work behind the scenes at Piedmont Players.

“When we first bought the Meroney Theater and were raising money for the renovation we didn’t want to raise the ticket prices too,” he said. “Claude was our very first producer.

“The reason we have producers is not necessarily to make our budget, but to keep from gouging people.”

The couple purchased the theater’s first hearing impaired system and donated a computerized box office.

“They have been very involved,” Leonard said. “We would be a lot poorer financially, emotionally and spiritually without them.”

Burnham still throws his popular birthday parties, dubbed the “Bad Luck Bash.”

“Every year that my birthday falls on Friday the 13th, I have a party,” he said.

Leonard said the heart transplant didn’t slow Burnahm down.

“He’s like the Energizer Bunny,” he said. “He’s still acting in shows. He’s still throwing parties. He’s still Claude.

“He doesn’t let anything stop him.”

Encouraging organ donation

Burnham gets questions whenever he wears a navy blue sweatshirt his sister-in-law gave him following the surgery.

The front says “I’m a Carolina Tar Heel.” The back reads “But my heart belongs to the Georgia Bulldogs.”

“I’ve never worn it when people didn’t stop me and say ‘There’s got to be a story here,’” he said. “I tell them there’s no story — it’s absolutely true.”

Burnham doesn’t mind explaining. It gives him a chance to let people know that an organ donor gave him the chance to see his granddaughter, Madeline, grow up.

“I’ve done quite a bit of public speaking on organ donation,” he said. “I encourage them to consider it, put it on their driver’s license and make their wishes known to their family.

“If somebody hadn’t donated a heart, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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