Woodstock resident Frank Hewitt (in front, at left) speaks at the State House in Montpelier last week, showing a photo of himself skydiving; to Hewitt’s immediate right is Mary Margaret Castro. Last week, Governor Phil Scott (in front, at far right) proclaimed April as Donate Life Month. (Photo Provided)
By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
The special meeting last week between Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and Woodstock resident Frank Hewitt, didn’t occur because of Hewitt’s remarkable skydiving feats over the last 50+ years, but because Hewitt shouldn’t have been alive to have had the meeting in the first place.
On the verge of his 66th birthday, Hewitt – a 1970 graduate of Woodstock Union High School – was diagnosed with congestive heart failure over a year ago with a dim prognosis.
Not only did he need to have an outside pump installed into his chest to keep his heart going, his blood type was RHO-negative, one of the rarest, resulting in a slim chance of a heart transplant.
“My doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock wasn’t very optimistic,” said Hewitt in a recent interview. “I waited a year and a half. My organs had shut down. In fact, I was in the end-stage of heart failure.”
But then came the historic phone call from Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“It was a miracle,” said Hewitt. “They found me the perfect donor.”
A young 26-year-old Connecticut woman named Danielle Elliott was brain dead from a heroin overdose. Her still-beating heart was removed and placed into Hewitt that same day.
“She was RHO-negative, her heart was the same size, her enzymes were a match, and her weight was the same as mine,” said Hewitt. “Everything was perfect. We were a match.”
Elliott’s godfather, David Velardi, had urged her family to donate some of her organs.
Hewitt received his new heart on Jan. 27, 2017.
“They cracked me open around 3:30 in the morning,” said Hewitt. “It was just a simple plumbing job, really.”
Released from Tufts just eleven days later, Hewitt was back to work as a mason within two weeks. He was unstoppable.
“I’m living proof that you can go back to a full-capacity life,” said Hewitt. “I’m doing things now that I did in my ‘20s, all because I got a heart transplant. “
In total, Hewitt has had 5,296 skydives – 5 with his new heart. He begins at 12,000 feet and falls anywhere between 120 mph to 300 mph.
“You become a bullet,” said Hewitt. “My heart beat actually drops from 98 to 70 per minute because I’m actually calmer when I’m falling. It’s exhilarating.”
On Hewitt’s first dive with his new heart, Velardi was on the ground watching.
“It was moving,” said Velardi. “It was heartwarming.”
Hewitt was also inspired.
“After the sky dive, David put his hand on my chest and said he could feel Danielle’s heart,” said Hewitt. “It was a bonding moment. The fact that I got someone else’s heart is mind-boggling anyway. He tells me that he enjoys that her heart lives on in me. And, because of that, I’m able to resume my life.”
In fact, Hewitt said that he thinks of Danielle with every jump he takes now.
He is also encouraging others to make sure their driver’s license reads ‘organ donor.’
“Without that, I would have been dead a year and a half ago,” said Hewitt who, last week with the Governor, celebrated Scott’s proclamation of April as Donate Life Month.
“I was the only organ recipient there,” said Hewitt. “It was very personable. We spent time together talking. Governor Scott is very down to earth and very serious about promoting organ donations.”
Gov. Scott was at the State House along with Commissioner of Health Mark Levine, DMV acting-Commissioner Wanda Minoli, transplant surgeons from the University of Vermont hospital, and Donate Life Vermont in addition to individuals personally touched by donation to discuss life-saving organ donation and the important role the state plays in registering donors.
“The state plays an important role in the donation process as the vast majority of individuals in Vermont (95 percent) register to be an organ and tissue donor at the state DMV,” said Matt Boger of Donate Life Vermont. “In 2017, over 1,103 lives were saved here in New England because of the generosity of individuals who became organ donors.”
Continuing to build and remodel homes in the local area as a mason and a shriner, Hewitt employs seven workers in his Hewitt Construction that is headquartered on Rose Hill in Woodstock.
“One of our qualifications is to believe in a higher power,” said Hewitt. “I believe in that, and I think it’s higher than everybody. Higher than God. There’s somebody up there higher than Him. I’m living proof of that. I now have a new lease on life.”