NEW HEART, FULL LIFE by Shell Lessen

Mason Sommers’ heart called a brief time-out when he was 16 years old. But he kept on truckin’ through that episode and other heart problems in the years to come.

Luck played a part in Mason’s recovery that day. So did his remarkably positive, unselfish outlook on life, which has served him well ever since.

He was stricken while jogging at Beverly Hills High School. The team’s track coach, who was nearby, rushed to the scene and administered Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). His quick action led to a recovery—of sorts.

Dancing with a star

The second episode struck at age 20. It occurred when Mason’s enlarged heart and a contracted muscle rebelled against his fearless “Don’t-worry-I-can-handle-it” lifestyle.  This time he collapsed while dancing with his sister at home in Beverly Hills. It was her turn to provide CPR. And, once again, his turn to provide optimism.

“I never think of myself as a victim. Like everyone else, I sometimes have lousy luck. However, I know that’s bound to change and that I have it in me to calmly ride out the psychological storm. I make sure the people around me know it as well.”

The next 30 years proved the point. During this period Mason’s irrepressible lust for life led him to attend the University of California at Irvine for two years as a pre-med student. Here, he realized that medicine was not for him. He took an occupation preference test, and psychology won hands down.

Finding himself

He then switched to UCLA where he earned a Bachelor degree as a psychology major.  A Master’s degree and Doctorate followed at the California School of Professional Psychology.

Doctor Mason Sommers was licensed in 1985. Since then he has been a practicing psychologist specializing in couples therapy, depression, trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

At age 37 he became a father. Newborn Ben was presented to him by his lesbian “mommy.” Mason, who is gay, had always wanted to be a parent and, as he put it, “Ben brought a world of joy into my life by simply showing up.”

More joy in spite of it all

Big game-changers were to follow three years later when Mason met Rami Aizic, a fellow psychologist who was also gay and shared Mason’s feelings regarding parenthood.

Their friendship ripened into a loving relationship. They’ve lived together ever since, and thanks to in vitro fertilization, a baby girl named Bailey granted Rami’s wish.

On the dimmer side, chances of successfully treating Mason’s heart condition were becoming problematical.  The medicines he tried proved ineffective. “So did a new advanced-design defibrillator,” he recalled. “And my breathing was so difficult I had to sleep sitting up. By 2008 we started talking heart transplant.”  Episode three made it the main topic of conversation.

Anything for a friend

E-3 struck on the day Mason, despite feeling exceptionally weak, insisted on attending the unveiling of the resting places of a friend’s parents. Both died in the same year. Mason, a learned Jew, promised his Jewish friend that he would recite the special prayer that marked these sad occasions. Rami, also Jewish, agreed to conduct the service.

The doctors had a more secular idea. They wanted to put Mason in the hospital, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I could not let those people down,” he explained. He had his way.

In the Jewish tradition, following the funeral those in attendance were to meet at the home of Mason’s friend for food and solace. Mason never made it. While exiting the car to enter the house, he lost consciousness.

Upping the ante

He was finally revived and ate some food “which made me feel even worse. I then realized the best place for me was the hospital,” he said. How right he was. A multiple organ shutdown had begun.

When Mason arrived at the hospital, he was not responding and was immediately put on automatic external compression pumps to get blood flowing. A dialysis machine was pressed into action too. Gradually, over a four-month period, one by one, the organs regained function.

Mason did all he could to keep his promise that day. And he risked his life to do it. This earned him plenty of points for courage and determination. And plenty of other reasons for concern.

Cooling it

In the face of it all, Mason declared “panic is out of the question” one day when he was reminded that a heart transplant was only in the talking stage; he wasn’t even on the list for a transplant; and the doctors were not sure he would survive the surgery.

Times like these toughened Mason, who would not and could not settle for less than a transplant. He summed up the situation in typical style by instructing one of the surgeons to “just wake me up. I’ll do the rest.”

After close examination and much discussion, the doctors agreed to give Mason the green light to join the list of eligible heart transplant patients.

“Then came six weeks in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit before being listed. This increased time spent in the unit to four months plus a week on the open floor, along with two months at home waiting for the right heart to be found. All this time I was kept alive by mechanical support,” Mason pointed out.

The best news possible

The clouds lifted when the Sommers-Aizic phone rang at bedtime on April 8, 2010.  You guessed it. The call was for Mason, who was asleep. Rami answered; woke him up; and quickly handed him the phone. Sleep was forgotten when Mason heard that a heart had been found matching his blood type, heart size, antibodies and all the rest. They were at the hospital within an hour.

Surgery, originally scheduled for 7:30 that morning, began in the afternoon of the 9th and ended the following day that Mason dubbed “my transplant date.” For others, it was the last day of party time.

Word of Mason’s impending transplant had spread throughout the hospital the night the heart was located and into the next day. Due to his visits and outgoing personality, many people on the staff knew and admired him. Result: tears of joy, prayers of thanks, cheering and spontaneous celebrations. Plus countless offers of post-surgery help, whether Mason needed it when he was in or out of the hospital.

Another burst of happiness lit up the place when it was learned that the surgery was successful.

Strong family ties

All this attention made Mason “feel like I am part of a very big, very loving family. It was one of the few genuinely bright spots in that period of my life. Rami, of course, was the brightest. He helped me endure this ordeal so many times in so many ways, from preparing strength-building meals and cleaning daily the various machines attached to me—to just being Rami.”

Following the transplant Mason backed up words of gratitude with action that included “giving back” and renewing his practice of lending a helping hand to other less fortunate people. For example:

Today this active, involved 57-year old teaches a course in The Doctoring Program at UCLA. Designed for first, second and third year undergraduate medical students, the program facilitates discussion groups that cover pertinent non-medical topics applicable to the field. Among these are professional ethics, conflicts of interest and confidentiality.

A couple of givers

Moreover, he and Rami have agreed to be interviewed for their story of Mason’s ordeal. It will be presented to second year medical Students to familiarize them with a view of transplant from the perspectives of the patient and caregiver.

“That’s our way of saying thanks to the medical profession,” Mason noted.

His interest in public health issues extends to The Maple Counseling Center. TMCC is one of the few Southern California organizations providing comprehensive mental health services to a diverse, multi-cultural clientele regardless of ability to pay. Mason has served TMCC as Board President since 2010.

Straight from the heart

Among other humanitarian thank-you gifts—one particularly (and literally) close to Mason’s heart— is his association with Donate Life/ One Legacy, the world’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization.

Two years after life-saving surgery he earned this organization’s “Ambassador to Media” award. It was given in recognition of his successful effort to obtain the assistance of radio and print media in promoting the need for organ and tissue donations.

Unknown givers of life

“My association with Donate Life is the result of an attempt to meet the family of the man whose heart now beats in my body. I wanted to express my profound gratitude and assure them that if ever they are in need I will be ready and willing to help.

“The family, however, wishes to remain anonymous, and no help is needed. So I did what I think was the next best thing. In honor of my unknown donor, I support an organization dedicated to acquiring and distributing organs and tissue.”

How appropriate and characteristic of the inimitable—and inspirational—Doctor Mason Sommers.