Back in the 1990s, Lawrence Williams was a hotel chef.
“My wife used to eat good,” he said of his cooking skills. So did he.
Relaxing in the living room of their Fairview Heights home recently, he and Myra now reminisce about the pork loin with spinach and cream sauce he would make, or the chicken cordon bleu and eggplant Parmesan. There were the huge breakfasts he would prepare for his large family — and don’t forget the fast-food fried chicken they loved so much.
Those are dishes of the past now.
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The 59-year-old still cooks for his family, but the rich sauces have been replaced with herbs for flavor. The multi-course breakfasts have yielded to coffee and oatmeal. The two hardly ever have fast food anymore.
For Lawrence, walking around with another man’s heart in his chest compels him to make certain changes, and to spread the word.
“I don’t want nobody else to go through what I went through.”
A heart that failed
Lawrence didn’t always have heart problems. He was healthy and hardly ever got sick, he said, enjoying his work as a chef at Anheuser-Busch in St Louis.
But in 1998, Lawrence got a pesky virus that landed him in Barnes Jewish Hospital. A buildup of fluid put pressure on his heart. He was later diagnosed with congestive heart failure. A series of procedures and surgeries followed over the years.
There were many days he thought he was near death.
In May 2010, after losing 60 pounds, he got an LVAD, a left ventricular assist device. It’s for patients who are in end-stage heart failure. It was expected to keep him alive another five years.
Lawrence was put on a waiting list for a heart. His new life arrived that same year, on Nov. 27, 2010.
A new, young heart
The couple don’t know much about the donor: He was male, because transplanted hearts do better with the same gender. And just 17. He had B-positive blood, like Lawrence, and was about the same weight.
Through the transplant association, they wrote letters to the donor’s family, professing gratitude for the gift of life. The couple’s only grandson, Antione, then 11, wrote “Thank you for saving my grandpa. He’s my best friend.”
Myra, 57, had hoped the two families would become close. Lawrence would love to cook them a “tremendous feast,” he said. That hasn’t happened.
“We were hoping to have some communication with them,” she said. “But I understand. This is a positive experience for us; it’s a tragic one for them.”
In the hospital for nearly a month, Lawrence was home three weeks, then started rehabilitation at Memorial Hospital in Belleville. In the beginning, Myra said, he could walk for only a few minutes, then rest.
Some transplant patients and their families think the patients take on some characteristics of their donors.
The Williamses have noticed some subtle changes, which Myra attributes to the donor’s youth.
“Sometimes (Lawrence) isn’t as patient as he used to be. More irritated than he used to be,” she said.
“He’s still the same as far as being compassionate,” she added. “He likes to make people laugh and feel good. ... Maybe because he was sick for so long, there’s a sense of urgency.”
The guy with the big heart
Before his heart problems, Lawrence was “that” uncle, the one who would take all the kids in the family everywhere and cook like crazy.
The third of 10 children, among five boys and five girls, family photos line the coffee table and fireplace mantel of their home. He has a grown son and daughter and a grandson Antione, now 17.
He would, if Myra let him, talk for hours about his family and their faith.
Both are active members of Grace Church in Fairview Heights.
“He is such an outgoing individual and has a big heart to serve people,” says Phillip Silsby, seniors pastor of Grace Church. “He’s felt that God has helped in many ways, and he wants to give back.”
Lawrence grew up in St. Louis’ Central West End, where he and some of his siblings attended Catholic schools. His late mother insisted on college, too, so he went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., before heading into the Illinois National Guard.
It was his mother’s French heritage — and her happy to have him in the kitchen — that helped inspire his cooking. He would get up early to make coffee for his parents and to have one-on-one time with mom. His dad taught him to barbecue.
“It was easy for me. Always easy for me,” Lawrence said of cooking. “I do breakfast well; I’m known as the omelet chef.”
Today, Lawrence keeps busy with family, church activities and testifying. Myra retired from the National Archives in St. Louis.
He wants to go “everywhere,” Myra says, so they’ve traveled together to Las Vegas, Chicago and Disneyland.
But his real mission is telling others that a lifestyle change, which he started after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, can be successful.
It’s “not the end of the world” he tells folks as a speaker for the American Heart Association. February, American Heart Month, will be a busy time for him, he said.
Lawrence lost more than 60 pounds between getting the LVAD and his heart transplant, but regained it from the months-long course of prednisone he had to take afterward. But he’s on the rebound and has lost 40 of those pounds so far. He and Myra got to the gym several times a week.
At his presentations, Lawrence shares his story of heart failure and talks about nutrition and blood pressure, says Regina Pauley, of the American Heart Association. She arranges for speakers though the organization’s Central Missouri office.
Rule No. 1, he tells them, “Take your medicine.”
He laughs, because his Rule No. 2 is the same, and Rule No. 3 is “ALWAYS take your medicine.”
And while medical professionals give talks for the AMA, people have told Lawrence they prefer speakers like him. They can see the evidence of what he’s gone through and hear his stories of how life has changed for the better.
“My heart is only 23 years old now,” he said. “I do feel a responsibility,” he said. “I don’t take big chances; I’m more conscious of what I eat now.”
Lawrence never smoked or drank, and appreciates what he was given.
Myra: “You were given a gift; you have to take care of that gift.”