Have a Heart

Until scientists master the secret to immortality, local businessman-jock-turned-philanthropist Bill Wohl has the answer: Donating your organs (and therefore your DNA) is a good way of stayin' alive. Granted, you won't be entirely yourself, but your affection for chicken wings might well live on if you leave your eyes or your elbows to someone after you die.

Wohl, a 58-year-old former jet setter who five years ago underwent a heart transplant, swears that he's taken on aspects of the personality of the 36-year-old Hollywood stuntman whose heart he now owns. Once an overweight, money-obsessed sports-star wanna-be, Wohl today works only part-time and spends the rest of his days setting speed and performance records in cycling and swimming, and running Arizona's Donor Awareness Center, a charity he founded shortly after his transplant. He cries sometimes, and he eats salad and listens to jazz music -- all because Brady used to.

Wohl isn't high. "It's not the transplant drugs," he swears. "Part of Brady is alive in me."

New Times: So you got a heart transplant, and lately you've been behaving like the dead guy whose heart you have.

Bill Wohl: Yes. I was a successful businessman in sports electronics. I worked seven days a week and I made a lot of money. And on Easter Sunday, 1999, I had a heart attack. They think a jaw infection that I had caused a clot that clogged my heart. What people don't realize is that all the bacteria that gathers in your mouth goes straight to your heart. Anyway, I had a heart attack, but I didn't know it. And it destroyed my heart muscle. The doctors don't know how I survived. Quite a few times I died and they brought me back.

NT: And the heart you got was from this Hollywood stuntman.

Wohl: I was in a coma for 30 days. When I came out of it, I couldn't walk or talk. I was attached to this 400-pound artificial heart. I used to watch the news every night, like, "Any car accidents tonight? Did anyone die on a motorcycle?" It's terrible, but when you're waiting for an organ donor, it's the only way you're gonna get out of jail.

NT: And then one day this stuntman dies.

Wohl: Right. Brady Michaels. He was filming an episode of [UPN daredevil show] I Dare You! The Ultimate Challenge. It was really the first reality show. Anyway, he was going to parasail onto a moving train, and he slipped [from a ladder while preparing] and hit his head and cracked his skull. He was an organ donor, and he had these two different color eyes, one green and one blue. And he always said if anything happened, he wanted someone else to have the opportunity to see the world through his eyes.

NT: That's nice. But also sort of gross.

Wohl: Hey, God doesn't need organs in heaven. Even the Pope came out with that recently. Anyway, after the transplant, the story I made up was that I had gotten the heart of some young Mexican kid who'd been shot trying to cross the border.

NT: Because they don't let you know who your transplanted organ came from.

Wohl: Well, they don't tell you for six months. And one day I was driving to work, and usually I listen to KSLX. You know: Elton John, The Eagles, Queen --

NT: Supertramp!

Wohl: Yeah. Styx, Foreigner. All that. And all of a sudden, one day I just turned the dial to The Coyote [KYOT]. And there's this song on, and I started crying.

NT: And I'm guessing you weren't a crier before.

Wohl: No. I've been a jock since I was a kid, and crying's not allowed. I was a businessman. I had time for work, my clients, maybe a little time for my family.

NT: But no time to cry.

Wohl: Right. And then I hear this song -- it was Sade. And I'm just crying. Six months later, Brady's mom called and introduced herself and told me I had her son's heart. And I said I wanted to burn her a CD of some music I'd been listening to that I thought linked me to her son. And we got to talking and she said, "Well, his favorite singer was Sade."

NT: Wow. Welcome to Creepytown!

Wohl: Yeah. And then she tells me he was also a big salad fan.

NT: Is that another jazz singer with one name? Salad?

Wohl: What? No. Salad, like lettuce and stuff. And I never ate salad. For me it was always fried foods and gravy, like that. And later I was talking to Brady's girlfriend, and she said, "Well, Brady was going through a cleansing period when he died where all he ate was salad."

NT: You are kidding me.

Wohl: No. And the next thing was even weirder. Back before my heart attack, when I was a businessman, I didn't have any time for anything else. I definitely wasn't into helping anyone. But as soon as I got Brady's heart, I got into this mode of helping people behind me. Whereas before, if there wasn't a buck in it for me, I thought, "F you very much!" But Brady was always giving books, money, food to people. Now I'm working on a [fundraising] Transplant Walk. And I started the "Be an organ donor" license plates. They promote donor awareness. People don't have a clue about it.

NT: I think I'd prefer to keep all my parts, though.

Wohl: But if you're dead, what good are your ears? People think if they mark "Yes" under "Do you want to be an organ donor?" that it's "Oh, they're going to kill me so they can get my organs!"

NT: Did other people notice these changes in you?

Wohl: Maybe. But you know, there have been several documented cases like mine. There was this one guy, a total Archie Bunker type, who got the heart of a 16-year-old black kid. And after the transplant he started playing classical music, because that's what the black kid was into. And then he started inviting the other black guys home from work.

NT: Good thing you didn't end up with the heart of a cocaine addict -- or a Barbie collector! The heart is a blood-pumping vessel. Do the body's organs store memories?

Wohl: Well, the theory is that because the heart is such a large organ, there's a lot of DNA in there. And the theory is that the DNA holds certain memories: food, music.

NT: So are you partly Brady Michaels?

Wohl: Well, I carry his heart around with me wherever I go. I'm more intense in my training, and I'm really into speed now. And Brady was very into going fast.

NT: I understand you met Brady's family. And that his brother brought a stethoscope and asked if he could listen to your heart. Didn't that strike you as sort of weird?

Wohl: Well, I thought, "Okay, uh, whatever." But I knew it was a really big deal for him, so I let him do it. And you know another thing? I never used to say "Dude," but now I do all the time. And it turns out Brady used to say "Dude" a lot.

NT: You're just like him now! But have you developed the desire to do life-threatening stunts on TV?

Wohl: No. I have a girlfriend who jumps out of planes, though. She's trying to get me to do it, but I don't jump out of planes or buildings.

NT: Your girlfriend -- is that Brady's old girlfriend?

Wohl: No. But I've met her. And she's really cute!

NT: Do you think your connection to this guy will fade over time?

Wohl: It'll never go away. I take him with me wherever I go. Without him, I'd be planted somewhere right now. I was really lucky.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela