Harwood, 74, a retired attorney, has defied the odds of survival thanks to the strong heart of Debbie's husband, Vance "Dusty" Atkinson. Dusty was a long-haired, tattooed, Harley-Davidson-loving man who suddenly died at age 32 from a brain aneurysm in 1992. On Wednesday, Harwood and Dusty's wife and son Nick met for the very first time in an emotional encounter at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian's Heart & Vascular Institute in Newport Beach.
"I never thought I would hear that again. It was so nice to hear it beat, very calming," Debbie Atkinson said while fighting back tears. "He wasn't ready to give up yet. His heart wanted to continue on."
And that's exactly what it has been doing all of these years.
Dusty's heart has kept beating for Harwood, enabling him to play golf, watch basketball, practice law until last year, and spend time with his wife, children and grandchildren. Hoag doctors say a heart transplant recipient on average can live about five to 10 more years, but Harwood said he plans on living at least 20 more.
"This heart is the greatest gift. I very well may not have been here without it," Harwood said. "I have been able to see my children live life and watched my eight grandchildren grow."
Dr. Aidan Raney and Dr. Douglas Zusman, who performed Harwood's transplant, said Harwood's 52-year-old heart is pumping blood extremely well. When he was near death in 1992, the volume of blood pumped with each beat was 16 percent. Today that percentage is at 71.
"He's been doing extremely well," Raney added.
Several nurses who cared for Harwood while he recovered also stopped by to check on their old patient.
"We were some of the nurses who took care of you and wanted to say hello," Ginger Pierson said to Harwood as she embraced him. "You look great."
Debbie and Nick Atkinson only recently decided they were ready to meet the man with Dusty’s heart. Debbie Atkinson said Dusty was the love of her life, a simple kind of guy who served in the U.S. Army, enjoyed playing racquetball, didn't want much fuss or a fancy funeral.
And he knew he wouldn't live to grow old with her.
"He told me he wouldn't live to see 35, and he dropped dead at 32," Debbie Atkinson said. "But he wanted to give someone else a chance. A door opened, and his soul had to pass on, but his body wasn't ready yet."
Debbie Atkinson said after losing a cousin at a young age, Dusty decided to become an organ donor. He donated his heart, kidney, liver and corneas to other people. She is encouraging others to find inspiration in Dusty's story and consider becoming an organ donor.
"It's not just about dying," Debbie Atkinson said. "It can give someone else a chance to live a longer life."
She plans to keep in touch with Harwood. Dusty's ashes now sit in a box in her living room, and, at times, it all seems surreal, said Debbie Atkinson.
"I don't see him as being dead, I still dream of him," she said.
Wednesday's heartfelt meeting was made possible by Hoag Hospital, which paid the airfare for Debbie and Nick Atkinson to fly to Newport Beach from Arizona. Dusty's other son, Robert, did not make it to the meeting but did send warm wishes to Harwood.
"Does your heart flutter when a Harley goes by?" Nick Atkinson asked of Harwood. "Because if it does, that's what it did with my dad too."
See adjacent video of Debbie and Nick Atkinson meeting Dennis Harwood for the first time and watch as Debbie listens to Dusty's heart pounding 20 years after she lost him.