Joe Sorvillo felt unprepared.
The Florida man had been on UAB Hospital’s heart transplant list for only a few weeks when the phone rang. He had planned to wait six months before getting a new heart. A year, maybe. But instead, on Aug. 25, 2011, he found himself hopping on a friend’s twin-engine plane to make it to Birmingham in time for surgery.
At the hospital, medical staffers quickly began prepping him for the transplant. They tested his blood, shaved his body, put him on the operating table. They waited for the heart. They reminded him that, until it showed up, no one was certain it would be a match.
But when Justin Sollohub’s heart arrived, Sorvillo said, they knew. Same blood, same enzymes, same size.
“It was perfect,” Sorvillo said. “I’m alive because of Justin’s gift.”
One year later
It’s been a year since Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub was fatally shot during a foot chase with a suspect. One year since he died at UAB, where the 27-year-old gave his last gift, his heart.
Sorvillo, 60, was in Birmingham this week for his monthly check-ups — tests to ensure his new heart is strong and healthy.
Meanwhile, in Anniston, his new, extended family — Sollohub’s family — went through the weekly routines of work and sports practices and, on Friday, a memorial for their son. Sorvillo had planned to meet them for dinner Friday to remember all that happened a year ago. But his wife fell ill and plans of gathering were abandoned.
Still, the families were connected on this anniversary eve as they separately reflected on the man who, when you get right down to it, had so much in common with Sorvillo: the big smiles, fearless attitudes. Their initials and the letters “SOLLO” in both of their last names. The vibrancy of their lives. The heart.
“More positive came out Justin’s life than you can realize,” Sollohub’s mother Jeniffer Morris said in an interview earlier last week. “We don’t think and stew on his death so much as his life.”
‘Sorrow and great gratitude’
Sorvillo saw the Anniston officer’s funeral on television last year, watching from a hospital bed at UAB. He had learned right away he had Sollohub’s heart, because the story of the shooting was “all over the news.”
And Sorvillo’s nephew, a state trooper in Florida, received email updates any time any officer in the country died in the line of duty.
“He sees Justin was killed in Anniston and has been taken to Birmingham, and he knows I was sent to Birmingham,” Sorvillo said. “So he put two and two together.”
Confronted with the images of Sollohub’s grieving family and friends, Sorvillo faced the brutal connection between his life and the young man who died.
“How sad was it that this guy had to die, and how his last act was to save my life?” Sorvillo remembered thinking. During his check-up Thursday at UAB’s Kirklin Clinic, Sorvillo cried as he recalled the funeral — recalled watching it, masked after surgery and hooked up to machines, fresh stitches on his chest.
“You feel like, well, do you deserve it? And you feel sorrow and great gratitude at the same time.”
Sorvillo fell silent. He inhaled. Exhaled deeply and wiped his tears.
“It’s pretty hard to put those feelings together,” he said.
Thank yous and closure
Not every organ recipient finds out the identity of his donor.
Alabama Organ Center spokeswoman Ann Rayburn didn’t have statistics on the number of donor and recipient families who choose to remain anonymous compared to those who decide to meet. But through her work with the state’s nonprofit organ donation network, Rayburn said she’s seen meet-and-greets between recipient and donor families happen more often over the past several years.
“I think there’s just been a lot more awareness and openness in that we, as an industry, realize there are benefits to them meeting,” Rayburn said. “Initially, people worried about appropriateness, but in reality it gives good closure to donor families and to recipients, the opportunity to say ‘Thank you.’”
Families who want to meet must first write anonymous letters to each other, using the organ center as a kind of middleman. Then, they have to sign release forms to authorize the center to give out their identities and contact information.
“Sometimes it takes 10 years after the donation has occurred for the families to meet,” Rayburn said.
‘Seeing somebody live’
Morris wrote her letter to Sorvillo — as well as to the recipients of her son’s kidneys and liver — right after Sollohub died.
She felt compelled to reach out to them amidst the tragedy, the chaos of losing her son. She only heard back from Sorvillo, who jumped at the chance to meet these people he had followed on television and in news stories.
The Sorvillos met Morris, her husband, Byron, and youngest son Blake in February, around what would have been Justin’s 28th birthday.
Byron and Blake used a stethoscope to listen to Sollohub’s heart inside Sorvillo’s chest.
“It was awesome to see how much Justin was able to affect somebody’s life,” Morris said.
Morris wasn’t seeking closure when she reached out to Sorvillo and the other recipients — that came when she watched doctors take Sollohub off life support. Neither did she mistakenly believe “Justin lived on” through the people now using his organs, she said.
“It was just wanting the pleasure of seeing somebody live,” Morris said.
‘One of the lucky ones’
For the first time in years, Sorvillo can climb a long flight of stairs. He did so Thursday morning on the steps at the Kirklin Clinic: down and up and down again, as he went from chest X-rays to the waiting room to the pharmacy and back to waiting.
“I couldn’t do that before,” he said to a Star reporter, gesturing to the staircase behind him.
“Before, I could only do this” — he stopped five steps from the top, adopted a belabored, shuffling movement to climb them — “and by the time I was done, I would be out of breath, really unable to breathe.”
It’s just one example, a small sign of the renewed strength Sorvillo has thanks to Justin’s heart.
The improvement in his health, Sorvillo said, is apparent every day. He and his wife own a wildlife refuge for endangered species of wolves and tigers at their home in Ponce De Leon, Fla. He spends long days taking care of the large, wild animals — from feeding them 1,500 pounds of chicken to arranging private tours and maintaining the 125-acre grounds.
Each month, he drives the three-and-a-half hours to Birmingham so doctors can make sure his body isn’t rejecting his new heart. He is strong enough to make the trip alone now, although on Thursday, his wife waited at the hotel while Sorvillo finished his check-up.
So far, so good, Sorvillo said, smiling at a Kirklin Clinic staffer he recognized.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Sorvillo had been dying since 2008, when he caught a cold on a business trip in Arkansas. He coughed for three weeks, went to the doctor and was incorrectly diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a serious breathing problem. But eventually, tests showed a virus — known as cardiomyopathy — had damaged his heart, enlarging and weakening it. He spent years battling illnesses brought on by his heart trouble — pneumonia, bronchitis, breathing problems. He couldn’t walk much.
His wife and volunteers took over for him at work.
“I didn’t think I was dying, but I guess that’s what I was doing,” Sorvillo said.
In April 2011, he had a mini-stroke one morning, as he tried to put up the coffee pot. In July, medical professionals put him near the top of the list for a heart transplant. As Sollohub lived his last month, patrolling the streets of Anniston, Sorvillo was in and out of the hospital, a tube buried in his arm to provide his sick heart with a constant, crawling supply of medicine.
“I had prayed on all of this and accepted that if I didn’t make it, then this was the way things were supposed to be,” Sorvillo said.
And then, on Aug. 25, the first phone call came at 3:30 a.m., jarring Sorvillo and his wife awake.
They had a possible donor. The second phone call, more than four hours later: They had a heart.
For her part, Morris said, she has no regrets after meeting Sorvillo, only awe and gratitude for the donation process.
Sometimes, these families have found, even the gifts you pray for are unexpected.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.