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After Athens man misses call for new heart, hospital staff race against time to find him

Body camera video shows the moment EMS and police tracked down Gerald Robinson to deliver the news he had a new heart.

ATLANTA — April is National Donate Month, a time for raising awareness around organ donation and the gift of life that impacts countless others across the country every year.

It’s a gift Gerald Robinson and his wife Ashley are grateful for every day. 

“It was hard for me to wrap my mind around how sick he was,” Ashley Robinson shared with 11Alive. “Until I got the chance to see his heart.”

Gerald and his family had only recently moved to Georgia when his symptoms started.

“I couldn't breathe. I was just feeling really, really sick,” Gerald said. “We went to the hospital, and I got admitted to the ER. That’s where I was told that I had heart failure.”

Gerald was admitted to Piedmont Athens Regional, where he stayed for over a week to remove the fluid from his heart and lungs. Despite treatment, his health continued to fail, and Gerald was ultimately added to the national transplant list.

While more people than ever are getting new organs, doctors said those waiting on the national transplant list still far exceed those numbers.

“Last year for the first time, more than 4,000 [heart] implants were performed, but still that is not enough to cover the need of so many patients,” Dr. Ezequiel Molina told 11Alive. "Heart transplantation is the gold standard therapy for some of those patients because it affords the better survival.” 

But the process of waiting for a match can bring further unknowns, Gerald shared.

“It could be a month, it could a year, it could be three years,” he said. “Is today going to be the day I’m going to get the call? How long am I going to wait? Or am I going to make it to that point?”

But the call came sooner than anticipated. On New Year's Day, in the middle of the night, the team at Piedmont Atlanta got the news that a donor heart and match for Gerald was available. The surgery needed to happen within four hours of the heart's arrival in Atlanta. 

But the Robinsons were in Athens and could not be reached. Piedmont heart transplant coordinator Ashley Allen was desperate to make contact.

"I was working against time," Allen explained of the urgency. "I had to get him in."

As a last resort, Allen did what she never had had to do before, calling local police and EMS to find the family at their home in Athens.

"The next thing you know, we get a knock on the door," Ashley remembered. "And they tell us they have a heart for you. I was shocked."

"I am so thankful that our transplant team in Atlanta took that extra step," Ashley added.

Allen meanwhile was up and waiting for word that EMS and police had reached the family. Once she got the call back, Allen started giving the Robinson's instructions to pack a bag and head for Atlanta.

"I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I knew that I didn't want him to miss," Allen said.

Meanwhile, Gerald and Ashley rushed to Piedmont Atlanta where doctors were ready for surgery.

"God got me through it," Gerald shared. "My family and the doctors really helped me."

Months after the transplant, the emotions are still raw, and for the Robinson family, the gift of life is never taken for granted.

"We thank God for organ donors," Ashley said. "It's such a beautiful thing that so many miracles can take place out of one person's life. It's just a beautiful gift, and we're very thankful for that. It changed our lives completely."

"It's something I think about every day," Gerald added.

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