Karen Weinrib received a heart transplant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in December 1991. She’s one of only a handful of UAB heart transplant recipients who have survived more than three decades past the procedure. She lives in Homewood with her husband, Dan, and their son, Jack.
Today she calls herself a full-time mother/patient/volunteer — “depending on the day.” At Temple Beth-El she’s a board member, serves as a docent for the Civil Rights Experience, and is active on its social action committee. Karen also serves on the board of Greater Birmingham Ministries, plus the boards of the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School and the Birmingham chapter of Hadassah. She has been a freelance writer and nonprofit professional, and taught history at her alma mater, Mountain Brook High School.
Karen speaks regularly about organ donation awareness for Legacy of Hope (formerly the Alabama Organ Center), and her newest venture will be involvement with the Transplant Games of America that Birmingham will host next summer.
Karen is a fixture on The J’s fitness floor most mornings, readily recognizable by her flashy compression socks and N-95 respirator. We caught up with her recently and managed to slow her down long enough to answer a few questions…
LJCC: What first brought you to The J?
KW: I owe The J so much. It’s my social outlet and one of the bedrocks of my sense of community.
During many times of my adult life — such as when I was a single high school teacher or after one of my many surgeries when I couldn’t drive — The J was the only place where I would get to interact with adults. It’s helped keep me alive for all these years since my transplant.
I’ve been coming to The J most of my life — long before “Levite” was ever in the name. My family moved here from Winnipeg, Canada in 1977, right before I turned 7, and my parents enrolled me in JCC Day Camp that very summer. But I really became a dedicated member about six months after my December 1991 heart transplant, when I came to do step aerobics in the auditorium (I beat Nan Unkenholz here by a year), swim in the indoor pool, and use what was then a tiny weight room alongside folks like Marilynn Leeds.
The LJCC is such a big part of my life, and it holds a huge place in my heart. I served on the board and was on the health and fitness committee for years, and I’ve volunteered for the Jewish Food and Culture Fest almost every year since its inception, and I’ve been involved with innumerable other activities over the years. My son attended the Cohn Early Childhood Learning Center and day camp, and my husband is a Sunday softball regular.
What fitness floor offerings best serve your needs?
My current fitness activities are a mix of walking, lots of weightlifting, elliptical, recumbent bike, PT exercises, and yoga. People have commented that I always seem to be here, so I joke that I’ve got a sleeping bag stashed in the corner.
At one point I was the “longest-lived” BodyPumper at The J, but had to stop due to shoulder problems. But I am stubborn as a mule and will always make my way back to the gym — even if I someone else has to drive me.
You’ll only see me on the fitness floor in the mornings, though, because unfortunately my chest feels lousy every day after lunch due to my current heart problems.
Although my medical problem list is more than two dozen items long, I’ve refused to let that stop me from exercising and keeping this transplanted heart in shape. It can sting to get funny or askew looks because I still wear an N-95 respirator inside The J, but my “duck” mask is how I can continue to stay healthy. Besides, I already stand out with my compression socks. You’ll notice that I favor the crazy-looking ones because — if I have to wear them — I might as well keep it fun.
How many heart transplant recipients are out there?
Some 30,000 heart transplants have occurred in the United States, and an additional 50,000 have happened around the world. When I inquired about longevity not long ago, I was told that there are only “a handful” of us at UAB who have survived beyond 30 years. So 31.5 years since my December 1991 transplant makes me a dinosaur of sorts. Although I’m part of a small club now, I know that number is going to keep increasing due to medical research and improved immunosuppression.
Of the many causes I believe in, organ donation is the most important to me. I would not be here without the generosity of a 17-year-old African American and his family.
Just about every major U.S. religious denomination supports organ donation. In Judaism, the mitzvah [commandment] of saving a life, called pikuah nefesh, is one of the highest values. In fact, one is even allowed to break Shabbat [the sabbath] to save a life.
Today, more than 100,000 people are queued up nationally for some kind of organ: heart, lung, pancreas, kidney, liver, etc. Sadly, more than 17 of them will die each day while waiting.
So please talk with your families about organ donation, because an organ procurement organization like Legacy of Hope will never take your organs without your family’s consent — even if you mark that box on your driver’s license.
What keeps you going?
I like to say that I’ve had a heart transplant and five other replacement parts. I had the heart transplant at UAB unexpectedly during my senior year at Emory, then had three parts of my neck replaced because of a one-in-a-million benign tumor in 2010, followed seven months later by a tricuspid valve replacement. Most recently, I underwent a partial elbow replacement after I broke both elbows and had a “terrible triad” injury in my left elbow.
My next surgery will most likely be another tricuspid valve replacement. As long as UAB keeps replacing parts, I plan to keep chugging along. As I like to say, parts are parts! Admittedly, I’m proud of the fact that I was back on The J’s indoor track less than two weeks after both my neck and second open-heart surgeries… although as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it difficult to replicate those feats after some more recent surgeries.
I am a rules-follower regarding doctors’ instructions. I eat a lower fat/salt/cholesterol mainly pescatarian diet, I exercise a ton, and I eat chocolate every day.
Most importantly, I have the unending support of my friends and family. Truly, I would not be here without my wonderful family — especially my mother, my husband, my son, my three siblings and their families, and all my Weinrib in-laws.