ERIK COMPTON was a few nibbles into a this-is-living moment on Oct. 3, 2007—flicking a fishing line into a pond—when he felt what he instantly knew was the expiration notice on his second heart. A moment later he was behind the wheel of a car, rushing down the Dolphin Expressway in Miami (to heck with the tollbooth stops!) to the hospital. He was also speed dialing. At the sound of each beep, a soft goodbye would tumble out of him. I'm sorry.... This is it.... I just want to say I love you.
"It was surreal," Compton, 29, recalled in an interview last Saturday. "I was upset, but I was also confident I'd be in a better place and the pain would be over."
Compton is practiced at the how-to of death. "Dying is as easy for me as living in some ways," he said.
His first heart had lasted 12 years before congestive cardiomyopathy made a transplant his only option at an age when most boys have just graduated from skinned knees to first crushes. His next heart, harvested from a 15-year-old girl named Jannine, was into its 16th year—about four beyond the average for a transplant—in the fall of 2007. By late September, Compton's golf game was unraveling. A former All-America at Georgia with career earnings of $295,700, he'd begun missing cuts on the Nationwide tour. He seemed unfocused: tired putts, lazy swings. He'd gone fishing to escape an earful of questions. Don't you care, Erik? What's up with you, Erik?
"Well, I was dying," Compton explained with a laugh at a dinner on April 8 not far from Augusta National. He stood before the Golf Writers Association of America to receive the Ben Hogan Award, named after the legend who won six of his nine majors after a car accident in 1949 left him with a broken pelvis, rib, ankle and collarbone, and blood clots that would require emergency surgery a month later.
"No one aims to get the Ben Hogan Award, because it means you've had to overcome adversity," Compton says, his sense of humor intact. After receiving his second heart transplant, on May 20, 2008, he is back on the golf course, having played in four PGA Tour events on exemptions over the past five months (and made the cut at the Honda Classic). First Jannine saved him. Now it's Isaac, a college volleyball player who was killed when his motorcycle was struck from behind by a hit-and-run driver.
For a lot of 29-year-olds mortality surfaces only as an existential question in coffeehouse debates—What is art? What is death? But Compton faces mortality every day. Because of death, he lives. Who knows how long this heart will beat? Will it be 10 years or 15? It is rare for a patient to receive a third heart transplant, due to the buildup of scar tissue and to the number of patients awaiting new hearts. "Obviously there is adversity ahead," Compton says, "and I'll face it when it happens."
In his 2008 book, The Last Lecture, the remarkable, often darkly funny computer-science professor Randy Pausch captivated readers with his life-affirming wisdom in the face of a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. But death need not be imminent or date-certain for Pausch's acute awareness of finality to resonate.
Why can't life lessons be well traveled and applied to the everyday? "I still get mad at the guy in the car in front of me in traffic," says Compton, "but I do have a certain perspective. I'm in a unique position. What is the fame worth if you can't help make a difference?"
Why can't instructions for living be carried around in a bag, between a six iron and a wedge, year after year? "My future may not be winning majors," Compton said in his speech at the awards dinner. "It may be just making cuts and scraping together a living. Maybe it's inspiring kids. Maybe it's helping the next guy facing a lonely night in a hospital."
He barely made it to the hospital entrance on Oct. 3, 2007. He blacked out. The next thing Compton knew, his father, Peter, was in front of him as a medical team pulled the emergency room curtain closed. "I remember saying to myself, 'This is awful. This is going to be his last recollection of me as his son,'" Erik says. The ounce of peace he felt came from the phone calls he had been able to make in the car. At least he'd said goodbye. At least he'd left messages.
He's good at dying. He's even better at living. Compton would spend 30 days in a hospital and months more at home, laboring to live long enough for another new heart. On Feb. 22, nine months after his second transplant, his wife, Barbara, gave birth to a girl, Petra, their first child. What sticks in his mind, though, is the sonogram he witnessed several months earlier and the most joyous sound he has ever heard: his baby's heartbeat.
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Erik Compton is back on the golf course after his second heart transplant. First, 15-year-old Jannine saved him. Then it was Isaac, a college volleyball player.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER