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Hasn't Met Hexum's Family : He Has Heartfelt Thanks for Late Actor's Gift of Life

October 20, 1985|ROBERT MACY | Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — An escort service owner kept alive by the beat of the late Jon-Erik Hexum's heart says he is at a loss to know how to thank the actor's family for saving his life.

"I feel when the time is right for them we'll communicate," Michael Washington said. Members of Hexum's family approved the transplant when the actor died Oct. 18, 1984.

Hexum, 26, was pronounced brain dead six days after he accidentally shot himself with a blank on the set of CBS-TV's "Cover Up." Family members approved donor transplants of Hexum's heart, kidneys and corneas.

Unsure How to React

"I've said 'thank you' in the press," Washington, 37, said recently. "I didn't know how to react or how they'd react. There's a period of time that has to lapse and I just didn't want to bother them. I think they've got the message."

"I feel like a family member," added Washington. "I know they want their son to live on in me. They want me to remember him every day--and I do."

In an recent interview on the television show "West 57th," Hexum's brother, Gunar, talked of the actor's death and said it would be "way too painful" to meet Washington.

Washington said there were "no words that can explain my gratitude" to the family.

"The family was tickled to death that I got the heart because I'm active just like John would have been," Washington said.

Race Not an Issue

Washington said the fact that he is black "never came into question" with the white actor's family.

And his ownership of Swinging Susy's, Las Vegas' oldest escort service, has been blown out of proportion, Washington said.

"We've been operating since 1975 and are a legitimate business," Washington said. He also operates an advertising agency, a boat rental business and a car cleaning company.

Doctors told Washington in August, 1984, that his heart was operating at 5% to 12% of capacity because of a mysterious virus. They said he had less than two months to live.

Today, thanks to Hexum's heart, Washington carries on a normal life and works out daily, swimming, bike riding and bench-pressing 200 pounds in a small gym on the patio of his $250,000 house.

Divorced, he is raising his two sons, Nate, 11, and Logan, 4.

Had 60% Survival Chance

In a den papered with Navy commendations for his two years in Vietnam, where he earned two Purple Hearts, Washington fields an incessant flow of phone calls and recounts the talk he had with Nate before his transplant.

Washington said he avoided telling the boy he had only a 60% chance of surviving the operation.

"He knew I was going in for a transplant, but he didn't know there would be no guarantees," Washington recalled. "He asked if I'd be OK and I promised I would be as good as new. I held him and hugged him and kissed him because I wasn't sure I'd see him anymore.

"Nate asked me if I might die and I said that was up to God.

"He began to cry, saying 'Dad, don't leave me, don't die.' I told him to go out with his grandfather and pray.

Woke Up to See Son

"The first thing I saw when I woke up was my kid grinning ear to ear," Washington said. "So I knew I'd made it."

Before the operation, Washington said doctors told him he would receive the heart of a 19-year-old traffic accident victim. It was only after the surgery that he learned from a nurse that he had received the heart of the popular actor.

"I remember feeling, 'Here I'm alive because of someone else's tragedy. These must be really special people,' " he said. "How do you thank someone for this kind of gift?"

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