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Surgeries May Transplant More Than Just Organs

May 15, 1996|LINTON WEEKS | THE WASHINGTON POST

When Claire Sylvia woke up from a heart-and-lung transplant operation at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1988, she was craving new and strange things--beer and chicken nuggets.

She began dreaming about a young man with the initials T.L. In her sleep, she kissed him and as their lips met, she sucked his entire body--ghost-style--into her own.

Convinced that her new organs may have triggered profound change within her, Sylvia set out to discover the identity of her donor. He was an 18-year-old house painter whose names began with a T and an L. He loved cold beer and fried chicken.

After hearing this eerie story, collaborator-to-the-stars William Novak tracked down Sylvia, a dance teacher in her mid-50s, and arranged to write her life (lives?) story. He also was intrigued by her work with other organ recipients who have had similar experiences.

The result, tentatively called "A Change of Heart," will be published by Little, Brown & Co. next year.

"This is a mind-boggling thing to come along," says William Phillips, an editor with Little, Brown for 30 years. He acknowledges that on the face of it, the story strains credulity.

But Phillips believes it with all his heart.

"I've known Bill Novak for years," Phillips says. "He is a very sober, sophisticated guy."

Novak, who has helped a passel of people--including Lee Iacocca, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Oliver North and Tip O'Neill--write autobiographies, first heard about Sylvia three years ago at a party at the home of Deepak Chopra.

Chopra, a holistic guru and best-selling author, took Novak aside and, for reasons Novak still can't fathom, told him Sylvia's story. "It never occurred to me to try to find the person," Novak says.

Then in November, Novak spied a small item in the Boston Globe about Sylvia. The squib laid out the details and said Sylvia was hoping to write a book about her experience. Novak was "in search of a project," so he called her.

Over the course of a dozen or so conversations, he determined that she had a story good enough, and long enough, to make a book. "And she's not a flake," he says.

When Sylvia set out to find her benefactor, Novak says, the hospital refused to help. But by cobbling together newspaper obituaries and a few other facts--he had died in a motorcycle crash--she discovered his identity and met his family. She was so overwhelmed by her experiences, Novak says, she began keeping extensive journals.

Novak took Sylvia's notes, wrote a book proposal, and together they sold it to Little, Brown for what Phillips describes as a "goodly sum of money."

"Somehow it's an idea that even the most skeptical people find believable," Phillips says. "Cellular memory has some credibility."

Novak says Sylvia's experience is not isolated. Since her operation, she has formed several support groups for other recipients who also have dreamed of their donors and dealt with their cravings.

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