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A celebration of courage and heart

  • Published
  • By SMSgt David Lipp
  • 119th Communications Flight
A special group of people gathered at the Fargo Air Museum in Fargo, N.D., May 15, 2007, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the gift of life.

On the morning of December 22, 1986, four-month-old Michael McCann lost his life. His parents, Steve and Karen McCann, made a courageous decision in the midst of their grieving, to give the gift of life to another infant by donating their son's heart. 

Due to an unlikely chain of events, and heroic decisions and actions by many people over the next several hours, it was a North Dakota Air National Guard pilot in an F-4 Phantom who raced through the dark early morning skies to deliver the heart from North Dakota to California, where 5-month-old Andrew De La Pena waited desperately for that heart. 

Although in 1986 heart transplants were not common and infant heart transplants rare, there was hope for little Andrew. Doctors at the Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, Calif., told Stephen and Deborah De La Pena that the window of time a heart would be viable for transplant into their young son was four hours. The clock started ticking when the tiny heart was recovered from little Michael McCann at 11:45 p.m. at St. Luke's Hospital (now Merit Care Hospital) in Fargo, N.D. 

Dramatic events began to unfold in the frigid winter darkness as one of the engines on a Lear Jet, designated to transport the tiny heart, failed to start. 

Thankfully, one of the transplant team doctors called then-North Dakota Governor George Sinner for a solution. 

"It was divine intervention that I thought of tasking the North Dakota Air National Guard F-4s on 24-hour alert status," said the former governer. 

He called Major General Alexander P. Macdonald, N.D. Adjutant General at the time, and asked for use of the alert aircraft. 

"It took me all of 30 seconds to agree to the special flight," said the retired major general.
Thus began the process of having an F-4 released from its North American Air Defense Command alert commitment to save a single, tiny life. 

A few minutes later a phone rang at the alert facility and the pilot on duty, 1st Lieutenant Robert J. Becklund, answered the call to one of the most unusual missions in his now long and distinguished career. 

The then-young lieutenant, Becklund raced to the waiting F-4, and prepared for the cross-country flight in the two-seat F-4, which he would have to fly solo in order to make room for a little red and white cooler containing the precious cargo of a human heart. 

"I was just the guy on duty that night, and the beauty about the Air National Guard is that we are available to be called upon by our governors for state and local emergencies, and the president for federal disasters, or to support the global war on terrorism. To be called upon by the governor is not an unusual thing. We are called upon quite frequently. Our assets are at their (the governors') disposal and we are ready for them to use those assets for whatever is needed," said Colonel Becklund, whose career has evolved to his current position as commander, 119th Wing, North Dakota Air National Guard. 

The quick flight was just a portion of the long journey for the tiny heart. Andrew's mother, Deborah, recalls being very uneasy about the time it had taken to get the heart to Stanford. 

"It had been more than seven hours since the heart had been recovered by the time it arrived in surgery with the transplant team and I asked the doctors if they had missed their window for success. Dr. Vaughn Starnes, a member of the transplant team, looked me in the eyes and said, 'it's going to work,' and it did," she said. 

If anyone had done anything less, during any step in the process that dramatic morning, Andrew De La Peña may not be here today. 

Andrew is 20 years old and his heart is beating stronger than ever. He was a varsity swimmer at his high school and senior class president, as well as a participant in countless community service activities. He currently attends Loyola University, New Orleans, La, appropriately majoring in drama. 

By any standards, Andrew has made good use of the second chance given to him.
"I am grateful to all of the people involved and there is not a pulse that goes through my veins without appreciating the gift they gave me."