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A. Schoenberg, 81; Was Oldest to Receive Heart Transplant

Obituaries

June 08, 2002|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arthur Schoenberg, once before, had prepared himself to die. A rabbi had come to his bedside, a eulogy was written. Goodbyes were said, and Schoenberg had handed down his treasured golf clubs to one of his sons. As with life, he approached death with humility and grace.

A flurry of 12th-hour decisions, however, led to what his wife, Jane Schoenberg, describes as "the miracle," and on Sept. 21, 1986, at age 66, Schoenberg became the oldest person to receive a heart transplant in the United States.

At the time, the recommended cutoff point was 55.

Schoenberg had already been turned down once for a donor heart, but as his condition worsened, the screening committee at the UCLA Heart Transplant Program reconsidered his case.

"We were going outside the envelope with him, because of his personality and his family's support and their love for him," said Dr. Davis Drinkwater, a former member of the committee and the surgeon who performed the transplant.

"It was obvious he would get good attention from his family, plus he was a vital guy," he said.

Schoenberg, with the exception of his heart, was in good health. He was vibrant, and through four heart attacks and one bypass surgery had demonstrated a willingness to comply with whatever doctors asked of him.

The committee placed him on the waiting list, but because of his age he was given low priority. It was unlikely that a heart would become available in time.

Within 24 hours, however, Schoenberg was wheeled into surgery. A 23-year-old man had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Of the potential recipients, only Schoenberg was a match.

Three months later, he was shopping for a new set of clubs.

"He was the poster boy," said Drinkwater, now chairman of the department of cardiac and thoracic surgery at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "He led the whole movement of making alternate donor organs available to older patients."

Irene Furlong, a heart transplant recipient who, along with Schoenberg, helped start a local chapter of a support group for transplant recipients, agreed.

"Hearts that would not be used on younger people, hearts that may have had a bypass or angiogram, hearts that normally would be thrown in the trash can, we are using on older recipients because we are finding that older recipients do very well," Furlong said. "You're not going to give a 50-year-old heart to a 20-year-old, but you can give it to an older person."

The new heart added 16 years to Schoenberg's life, long enough to see grandchildren born, long enough to see Europe for the first time--and long enough to score three holes-in-one for a lifetime total of four.

He was out on the course three times a week, but earlier this year his health began to falter. Kidney failure required dialysis. Cancer, requiring radiation treatment, was spreading, and May 7 he suffered a stroke.

Schoenberg stayed with golf as long as he could.

He was competitive and had great respect for the game, said Melvin Small, one of his golf partners.

But eventually Schoenberg became too weak to play. He continued riding in the cart and putting with his buddies after they reached the greens.

Then, near the end, he could only sit out on the balcony of his home in Hancock Park overlooking the Wilshire Country Club course.

He waved at friends as they passed by and inhaled the picture-perfect beauty of grass and trees.

Eventually, when he could no longer sit up, Jane would fold the couch out into a bed and prop him up with pillows so he could see the course from their living room.

On May 17, surrounded by family in a room that looks out on the 13th green and 14th tee, Schoenberg died. He was 81 years old.

He was born in Atlantic City, N.J., but grew up in Philadelphia. A 1948 graduate of the University of Michigan, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s and started a business manufacturing ladies' handbags with his brother Theodor.

Arthur left the business in 1974 and worked as vice president of a friend's weatherstripping business until retirement.

Arthur and Jane were married in 1952 and had three children.

"The children say they never heard him raise his voice," Jane Schoenberg said. "He treated them all with respect from the time they were very young."

Her father was a calm, quiet presence, said daughter Marcie Schoenberg Lee, 51, of Tempe, Ariz. Once, while she was a college student, she asked if he could be more forthcoming with her. She wanted more communication.

From that moment on, he made a point to talk more often to her; and, over time, she also learned to listen to and understand his gentle silence.

"My dad and I had an understanding," she said. "We could sit in a room for hours and never say a word and both be completely content."

Perhaps it was because his transplant gave him a clear understanding of mortality that Schoenberg did not take life for granted.

For whatever reason, through words and silence, says Lee, nothing was left unsaid or undone.

She said goodbye by thanking him and saying he would live on in her.

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