Retired Laurel postal worker ‘Smiling Ed’ receives heart transplant

Ed Schaefer

Ed Schaefer considers last Friday to have been his one-month birthday.

That might confuse anyone who knows the retired Laurel postmaster, who turned 64 in August. But to Mr. Schaefer, who spent 88 days in the hospital this year, it makes perfect sense: Oct. 21 marked 30 days since he received a heart transplant and his life began anew.

“What this family did, it’s the greatest thing — it’s why I’m alive today,” he said.

Mr. Schaefer’s journey toward renewed health started in October 2015 during a visit to his son, Matt, in Queens. While on a walk with his wife, Debbie, and their son, Mr. Schaefer began to experience what he thought were gas pains.

As the feeling continued, however, he began to sweat. Realizing something was wrong, he asked his wife to call 911 and later learned he had suffered a minor heart attack.

Four days later, Mr. Schaefer underwent a quadruple bypass at North Shore University Hospital. But just two hours after the surgery, he suffered a major heart attack and was subsequently transported to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y.

That same day, Mr. Schaefer was connected to a Left Ventricular Assist Device, a surgically implanted pump that helps a failing heart’s left ventricle circulate blood. Later, he was told his name needed to be placed on a national heart transplant list.

“It was shocking,” his wife recalled this week. “I couldn’t believe they were saying that to me. Now, he had just had a bypass, so it was hard for us to accept.”

TIn December 2015, Mr. Schaefer was placed on the B waiting list, signifying he wasn’t in urgent need of a transplant since he had an LVAD to keep his heart pumping.

So Mr. Schaefer adjusted to his new routine, which required wearing an actual fishing vest with pockets filled with batteries and a controller to keep his LVAD running. His wife carried backup batteries wherever they went, and before Mr. Schaefer went to sleep he connected the device to a source of electricity.

This past spring, however, he was once again admitted to Westchester Medical Center after developing an infection at his driveline — the spot where the LVAD entered his abdomen.

Due to the severity of the infection and the medication needed to treat it, Mr. Schafer’s name was moved to the A1 transplant list in May — signifying he urgently required a transplant.

Four months later, he received the phone call that changed his life. 

Born and raised in Riverhead, Mr. Schaefer graduated from Riverhead High School in 1970 and attended Suffolk County Community College before embarking on a career in the postal service in 1971.

He spent 10 years working what he called the graveyard shift at the Riverhead post office, sorting through mail being delivered to zip codes beginning with the numbers “119.” He then worked for another decade at the Hampton Bays post office.

During this time, Mr. Schaefer also briefly filled in for postmasters at different post offices until he was hired as the Laurel postmaster in 1991. He retired in 2007.

“I enjoyed it because I liked working with the people, the customers,” he said. “That’s what drove you, because you can interact with them. You’re not working behind the scenes: You’re one-on-one with them. In a small office like Laurel, you knew everybody.”

“Everybody knows Ed,” his wife agreed. “Smiling Ed.”

During his 36 years in the postal service, Mr. Schaefer experienced many significant milestones, such as getting married, having a son, and purchasing the Riverhead home he still lives in.

He and Debbie met when he was just 19 years old, during a Fourth of July party at South Jamesport Beach.

“He just kept staring at me,” Ms. Schaefer said. “Finally — I’m forward — I told him, ‘You might as well come over and talk to me instead of watching me all day!’ And that was it.”

Three years later, in June 1975, they got married.

Throughout their relationship, the couple has enjoyed visiting beaches, such as Ocean City, Md., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. But while Mr. Schaefer waited for his transplant, the traveling they had long enjoyed needed to be put on hold. Since a heart could become available at any time, he always needed to remain within two hours’ distance of Westchester Medical Center.

So the couple took mini-vacations in their own backyard. They frequented local wineries every weekend — particularly Jason’s Vineyard in Jamesport — attended multiple shows at the Suffolk Theater and went to every Alive on 25 in downtown Riverhead.

“I’m so grateful for so many things,” Mr. Schaefer said. “I just have a different attitude about life this year. I didn’t want to miss a thing.”

During each of these events, he kept his cellphone in hand, waiting for the call that would change everything.

Around 5:15 p.m. on Sept. 20, Mr. Schaefer’s phone finally rang.

“We have a heart for you,” the voice on the other line told him.

“I’m not going to tell you what I said because you can’t print that,” Mr. Schaefer recalled with a chuckle. “Then I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ ”

In order to receive the new heart, Mr. Schaefer needed to transport himself to Westchester Medical Center. In hopeful preparation for this day, a friend had reached out to Suffolk County Police to see if it would be possible for Mr. Schaefer to use a medevac to shorten the trip.

It was — and shortly after he received the news, he drove to Peconic Bay Medical Center and stepped onto a helicopter.

“It was sunset over Long Island Sound,” he said. “What a beautiful sight and what a beautiful flight. And the experience coming in to Westchester and how they circle the hospital, it was just surreal.”

The next day, Sept. 21, he received his new heart, which doctors called a perfect match.

The identity of Mr. Schafer’s donor must remain confidential, but he was able to find out that his heart came from a young man.

“I always wonder what the interests were of that person,” he said, noting that he now finds himself talking about sports more than ever before. “I’ve heard stories about people who receive organs and have the same cravings as the person the organ came from. So I wonder.”

What Mr. Schaefer knows for sure is that he couldn’t have endured the past year without his support system — his wife, son and siblings, along with the friends who drove him to the hospital and brought gifts — and those who reached out over Facebook to share their love and support. He’s also grateful for the entire medical team who cared for him at Westchester Medical Center and will continue to as he returns each week for biopsies.

“I’m so thankful,” he said. “Every day I say a prayer for that person and their family that they know how much it means to me, what they did. They saved a life.”

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Photos: (Top) Ed Schaefer received a heart transplant in September after suffering two heart attacks within a week last year. To celebrate, he designed the shirt he’s wearing along with a matching hat. (Middle) Mr. Schaefer’s home was adorned with signs and balloons when he returned from Westchester Medical Center. (Credit: Krysten Massa)