The Athens Review
HOUSTON — All Joe Curl can do is wait.
Any day now, he hopes, the phone will ring with news that a new heart is on the way.
“I’m either going to be here and receive a heart and live, or I’m going to die,” Curl, the winningest women’s basketball coach in University of Houston history, said recently from his room in the cardiac care unit at Methodist Hospital. “It’s not a game. That’s the cold fact of it.”
Curl, 58, has been in need of a new heart since “being on death’s doorstep,” as he puts it, after suffering a heart attack on a recruiting trip in 2007. He was diagnosed with end-stage heart disease, the same condition that claimed the lives of his father, mother, two brothers and sister.
Curl briefly returned to coaching, but recurring heart problems - two cardiologists told him he could no longer fly - forced him to retire in 2010.
On New Year’s Eve, Curl was readmitted to the hospital, where he remained until being discharged Thursday. He’s been given 1B status — the second-highest priority for a heart transplant.
Heart recipients who visited Curl during his hospital stay told him the wait could be weeks, a few months, a year or longer. Also making a match more difficult: Curl is 6-8.
“There still can be no time put on that; there is no timeframe on it,” his oldest daughter, Angela Curl-Okafor, said. “That’s what makes it difficult.”
For now, Curl can only wait.
Former Houston women’s basketball coach Joe Curl suffered a heart attack in 2007.
He spends his days watching TV, keeping tabs on the UH women’s program and spending time with his wife, Lesa, two daughters, Angela and Jennifer, and his 3-year-old grandson, Maverick.
It’s a slower schedule than he was used to during his 20-year collegiate coaching career, which included the last 12 seasons at UH. He won 193 games at UH and led the Cougars to five postseason appearances. In 2003-04, Curl’s Cougars won a school-record 28 games, the Conference USA title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I went 100 miles an hour for 30-something years coaching,” Curl said. “To go from 100 mph to zero has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. What I’m going through, as we speak right now, is the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. The being in the hospital, not knowing what tomorrow brings tonight, a half hour from now, whether I’ll get a heart, whether I won’t get one.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Curl, his family said, has been being away from home. He’s been in and out of the hospital during the past year. During his recent hospital stay, framed photos of his family were placed on a bookshelf close to his bed. One photo showed the large pit in which he famously cooked barbecue at football games and team functions.
“He misses home and wants to be home,” Angela said. “It’s been hard and exhausting.”
So have the mounting medical bills. A heart transplant costs about $750,000. Even with health coverage, the cost for post-transplant care and medication will range from $2,000-$5,000 per month, according to estimates on the website joecurlhearttransplant.com.
To offset some costs, Curl and his wife moved out of the family’s Seabrook home in November and into a two-bedroom apartment closer to his daughters and the hospital. The constant need for medication and care has exhausted the Curls’ savings.
“They couldn’t afford it anymore,” Angela said. “The medical bills have been outrageous.”
Some days have been good, but “there’s been plenty of bad ones, too,” Curl said.
“(My family) has seen the good sides and the bad sides, the crying and the depression,” Curl said before pausing, the only noise in the room a monitor beeping every few minutes. “They have seen all those cycles and all those sides, and there’s a part of me that just wants to fight like crazy. But they see the other side where you are so close to saying, ‘what’s the use?’ You fight and fight and you seem like you’re not getting any momentum. With the care of your family and doctors, I can see momentum.”
At the same time, Curl said it’s “incomprehensible” to fully understand what comes with a transplant.
“It’s tough because you pray for a heart, but then you know what comes with that,” Jennifer Curl said. “You don’t want to pray for somebody else to have to go through what we’re not wanting to go through.”
Until then, all Curl and his family can do is wait.
“That would be the most wonderful day of my life because I know that’s what he wants so badly,” Lesa Curl, choking back tears, said of a heart becoming available. “I have struggled with this a lot because I have seen him struggle so badly. It’s like I will pray for God to just take him because it hurts so badly to see him like that.
“So if we got that call, I don’t think there could be a happier person on this earth than I would be at that moment. I don’t know if I could get here fast enough, because I would want to be here before they took him in.”
How to help
There are several ways for those interested in making a contribution to offset some of the medical costs for former University of Houston women’s basketball coach Joe Curl:
• Checks, along with a form that can be found on the website joecurlhearttransplant.com, can be mailed to:
Donation Fund Joe Curl
c/o Wells Fargo Bank
1600 Highway 146
Seabrook, Texas 77586
• Donations can be made by taking the printable form to any Wells Fargo location.
• Donations also can be made to the National Heart Transplant Foundation
For more information, visit joecurlhearttransplant.com.
Copyright 2013, Houston Chronicle Publishing Com-pany, reprinted with permission, all right reserved.