VERSHIRE— Shortly after Christmas, Jeff Worcester took a turn for the worse.
He’d been at Tufts Medical Center in Boston being treated for heart failure and had been added to the transplant list that October.
“I guess my heart stopped,” Worcester said on Monday during an interview at the Vershire home he shares with his wife, Shelia Bedi, and their 10-year-old daughter, Stella. “I quit breathing. My organs started to shut down.”
“I thought I was going to be a widow before I got there,” Bedi said.
Worcester was hooked up to an Ecmo machine to keep his heart going, and his condition propelled him toward the top of the transplant list.
Bedi, Stella and Worcester’s four children from a previous marriage gathered to support him. On Jan. 8, he received a new heart in a 12-hour surgery.
And Worcester and Bedi took on new roles as advocates for organ donation.
“Now, because someone made a choice to be a donor, we still have a father, a brother, a husband,” Bedi said. “We can go for walks again.”
Worcester, 54, and Bedi, 50, met online in 2006. In 2007, they were married, and in 2008, Stella was born. They are filled with enthusiasm for each other. They finish each other’s sentences without interrupting and touch hands as they recount their ordeal
“We were just active together,” Bedi said.
The couple regularly hike and dance.
Heart failure is not something that happens overnight. It is a long, drawn-out process where the person inflicted slowly loses strength and breathing becomes more difficult. Worcester was diagnosed in 2014.
“Over time, it’d just gotten worse and worse,” said Worcester, a disabled military veteran.
“He’d be gasping for breath,” Bedi continued.
The family was constantly worried about Worcester’s health.
“It was like a funeral here all the time,” Bedi recalled. “We forgot what normal felt like. I tell people you don’t know the meaning of carefree until you lost it.”
Their friends and neighbors stepped up to help. Some gave Bedi rides to Boston while others cooked meals, took care of their pets and went grocery shopping. A mail carrier shoveled out a vehicle in their driveway.
“The community support…,” Worcester started.
“Amazing,” Bedi continued. “It’s been phenomenal.”
In addition to the physical implications, the process has been a whirlwind of emotions.
“When we got the call, we were very excited and wicked emotional,” Bedi said. “You feel a little selfish because someone gave up their life and you’re getting this gift.”
Worcester is still processing the experience. So far, Worcester’s body is accepting the transplanted heart.
“It makes you grateful for the things you can do again,” he said. He is now able to walk and breath with much greater ease.
“This process has made me more humble,” Bedi said. And it’s made the couple more determined to pay it forward, in part by encouraging others to become donors.
While Worcester’s medical costs were largely covered by the VA, other expenses including travel were not. On Saturday, community member Steve Garrow is hosting a fundraising dinner for the couple from 5-7 p.m. at Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee. The menu features spaghetti and there will also be live music and a silent auction.
“To see all these people making time for Jeff and our family… I don’t even have the words to describe it. It’s just a feeling that takes over inside,” Bedi said.
At the dinner, they will be passing out emerald bracelets and ribbons, the color for organ donation.
“We’re living proof of the importance of it,” Bedi said.
In the months that follow, Worcester will return to driving, riding his motorcycle and hiking in the woods.
But first, he’s really looking forward to taking Bedi dancing.
Editor’s note: For more information about the fundraiser, call Garrow at 802-685-3141. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3221.