Author Marcia Preston’s “The Piano Man”��
It’s the moment every parent dreads – there is a knock at the door or the telephone rings, bringing news that your teenager has had an accident.
In some cases, that horrific tragedy can be transformed into an opportunity to give life. The organs of accident victims can provide hope to patients waiting on transplant lists.
Many Oklahomans are familiar with the Integris commercials—advertising spots that go beyond the technical success of medical operations to touch us deeply. One ad in particular captured the imagination of Edmond author, Marcia Preston, and wouldn’t let her go.
The commercial began with a photo of a high school student in a band uniform, then went on to explain how he’d died in a car accident. In the following shot, the young man’s mother places her hand on a stranger’s chest to feel her son’s heart beating inside.
“I cried every time I saw it,” Preston said. She knew if the piece affected her so powerfully, it would touch readers as well and could be the basis for a book. “The Piano Man” debuted in April and was picked as a Barnes and Noble book club selection for May.
Preston is familiar with what makes a good book. Her second mystery novel, “Song of the Bones,” won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for suspense fiction in 2004. She had just sold a mainstream, women’s novel, “The Butterfly House,” to a major publisher and they needed the outline for another project to be part of her two-book contract. They rejected a proposal Preston gave them for a book about a family separated by the Berlin Wall, but liked the organ donation idea.
Under the contract, Preston had to produce the book in one year.
“It was very scary,” she said. “I write slowly and I revise a lot.”
Preston knew to make the book authentic she needed to talk with people who had experienced organ donation first-hand. She started with the people in the commercial that sparked the idea.
Their names, along with hometowns, appeared on the screen. Jim Lenhardt of McAlester was the recipient of the donated heart. Preston found him through the McAlester phone directory and he agreed to meet with her.
“He’s a big bear of a man, about six-four,” Preston said. When she spoke with him it was about 12 years after the transplant operation. “He couldn’t talk about his transplant without choking up.” Fortunately, for Preston, his wife was able to provide her with ample details of the transplant procedures.
Preston also talked with Shirley Trainer, the mother who had lost her son.
“She was very candid about what the family went through and the decision they had to make,” Preston said.
Preston felt that making the decision had been explored a number of times in movies and television, but what happened after that difficult decision was an untouched area.
“I wondered how I could go on,” Preston said. “That’s what set me on the story.”
“The Piano Man” follows the story of Claire O’Neal, a mother who loses her son, but can’t come to terms with the fact he is gone.
“Three years later she is still not doing well,” Preston said. In the book, O’Neal sets out to find the man who received her son’s heart. When she locates the recipient, he is playing piano in a seedy bar. He is also smoking and drinking too much. O’Neal thinks he doesn’t really appreciate the gift he’s been given and makes it her mission to improve his health.
In researching the book, Preston talked to a number of transplant patients in addition to Lenhardt and developed a deep admiration for those who endure the process.
“The things people who have received organs have to go through are just amazing,” Preston said. Most have to take anti-rejection medications, which can cost thousands of dollars each month. Minor infections or a common cold can set the stage for organ rejection.
Preston said writing the book made her more appreciative of her own health and also showed her the immense need for people to sign up as organ donors.
“There are more people on the waiting list than there are donors,” Preston said. In addition to vital organs, a number of other parts of the body can also add years to the life of a recipient, including heart valves, tissue, cartilage and bone. Some people might think they are too old to be an organ donor, but Preston said that’s not so.
“Lots of things can be used that might not be affected by age,” she said.
Preston is donating a portion of proceeds from the sale of “The Piano Man” to the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.
To register as an organ donor, check the organ donation box on your driver’s license and go online to www.lifeshareregistry.org.