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After second heart transplant, Erik Compton plays at U.S. Open

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The golfer stands on a bluff at the 10th hole with the Pacific waves rolling beneath him. The starter calls his name, the crowd applauds politely, and Erik Compton steps forward. This is not the miracle.

Thousands of miles away in Dayton, Ohio, a house is mostly quiet except for the 14-year-old dog demanding to go outside. Between the barks, a man checks his computer for updates on the U.S. Open. This is not the miracle.

If you are of a mind to believe in such things, the miracle is the bond between them. Between a journeyman golfer whose heart was fading and the anonymous family who gave him a second chance. Between two men who never met but whose lives intersected in life and death.

Compton, a 30-year-old from Miami, played his first round at the U.S. Open on Thursday. He did not shoot particularly well, finishing with 6-over 77 that was eight strokes off the lead.

But that's not the point. No one expected Compton to contend because no one expected him to qualify. Two years ago he was dying in a Miami hospital because a heart transplanted 15 years earlier was failing.

He was fishing alone one afternoon when he began to feel chest pains and numbness in his left arm. Compton understood what was happening and began driving to a hospital. Along the way, he called his mother and father. Not to alert them but to say goodbye.

"He walked in and collapsed in the emergency room. They didn't even have time to get him behind closed doors," his father, Peter Compton, said. "We got there, and they were working on him right in front of us. It was like watching a horror show."

Doctors were eventually able to stabilize Compton with a stent in his chest. The solution, however, was temporary. Not long afterward, he was again a priority on the heart transplant list.

Around the same time, Isaac Klosterman took a vacation from his job at the Home Depot to meet up with friends in Key West. Isaac was a onetime volley­ball player at the University of Dayton, who loved to tease and laugh and show others a good time.

While his friends drove down with their motorcycles in tow, Isaac wanted to enjoy the entire trip on his BMW bike, and he drove alone. They spent a week in the Florida surf and on the Duval Street dance floors before it was time for Isaac to head home.

He was driving to a campground near West Palm Beach when his motorcycle was hit from behind by a pickup truck that fled the scene. At 4 a.m., a police officer pounded on the front door of the Klosterman home in Dayton.

"You see something like that on TV, and you think how awful it must be," said Isaac's mother, Lillian Klosterman. "I'm here to tell you, it is even worse."

Upon arriving in Palm Beach, the Klostermans were told their 26-year-old son was brain dead. Ten years earlier, Lillian had stood next to Isaac when he had filled out the application for his first driver's license and checked the box as an organ donor.

"He died mercifully, in my eyes," she said. "If you die doing something you love and you don't feel any pain and you can help others in the process, where's the bad in that? Because he was able to give life to five other people, it wasn't the tragedy it could have been."

Isaac's kidneys went to 15- and 11-year-old boys. His liver went to a 57-year-old man and his lungs to a 65-year-old man.

And his heart went to a golfer.

This has been Compton's life since he was a child and a lingering cold was diagnosed as cardiomyopathy. He had his first heart transplant at 12 when a teenage girl was killed by a drunken driver. He took up golf after the first transplant and assumed his career was over after the second.

"When I was laying there in the ICU after the transplant, I pretty much had come to grips that I wasn't ever going to play golf again," Compton said. "I sold all my golf equipment."

Maybe it was because he felt better after living with a fading heart. Maybe it was just his unwillingness to quit. Whatever the reason, Compton was soon back on the course. Within a year, he got married, had a daughter and was playing better than ever.

Weeks ago he made another urgent call to his father. This time he was in tears after qualifying for the U.S. Open.

"We see how he values his life," his father said. "It's not exactly living one day at a time, but we understand what it has taken for him to be here today."

Transplants are done anonymously, but Compton had written a letter thanking the donor's family. There was enough detail in the letter that Lillian was able to do some sleuthing on the Internet and figure out Compton's identity.

Last year when Compton played at a tournament in Ohio, the families finally met. They continue to correspond by e-mail and telephone, but Lillian says it is not for vicarious reasons. Isaac's heart is now Erik's heart, and they wanted him to understand that. The Klostermans have four other children and a life's worth of memories of Isaac.

"When I think about him, it's like a slide show on fast forward," Lillian said before beginning to cry. "Dancing with him at my daughter's wedding. Hugging him goodbye before his trip. … I miss him, but I know he's okay.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him. Not a day that goes by that I don't cry."

After second heart transplant, Erik Compton plays at U.S. Open 06/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 11:50am]
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