In one lay a young man, his body split from neck to groin. There was a single bullet wound in his forehead. His name was Mark Willey. He was 19 and had murdered his girlfriend, Karen Ermert, who had rejected him, and then aimed a single .22-caliber rifle at the center of his forehead and pulled the trigger. He was dead, but his young heart beat on, powered by the “whoosh-gasp” of a ventilator.
In another room, 30 yards away, lay Eva Baisey, a 20-year-old nursing student, alive but barely, sickened by an ailing heart so weak that it took her nearly an hour to walk a block and a half.
Gathered in these two rooms was a squadron of doctors, nurses and technicians who had been training on corpses for two years to prepare for a night they couldn’t schedule. Now that night had arrived, and they would replace Eva Baisey’s dying heart with the vibrant muscle still beating in Mark Willey’s exposed chest.
This is the scenario depicted in “The Beating Heart,” a riveting narrative by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, published in the Post magazine on Sept. 30. It chronicles in exquisite and sometimes excruciating detail a still-rare heart transplant operation that occurred more than 30 years ago — a procedure that would save Eva Baisey’s life, catapult the careers of two cardiac surgeons and expose dark truths about what Weingarten calls the “abominable crime” that brought this unlikely cast together.In 2013, Weingarten had asked three strangers to randomly pull pieces of paper from his fedora. The paper strips held months, days and years. The three handed back to Weingarten: December. 28. 1986.
Weingarten had set himself a seemingly impossible task: He would find extraordinary stories that happened that single day across America. Consider the particular challenges of the date: a Sunday in a holiday week, when most institutional events are suspended. And more than a decade before Google, which meant the hunt for events had to be done the old-fashioned way. Or, as Weingarten writes in the introduction to his magazine piece: “Bad day, bad week, bad year.”
Yet “The Beating Heart” is just one of dozens of stories he found.
Weingarten is unapologetic about calling the idea a “stunt.” But if anyone had the chance to pull off this stunt, it was him; he’s the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing twice. For “Pearls Before Breakfast,” published in 2007, Weingarten persuaded world-class violinist Joshua Bell to serenade rush-hour commuters at a D.C. subway station, then wrote about what happened. Two years later, he won his second Pulitzer for “Fatal Distraction,” the wrenching profiles of two different parents whose children died when they were left unattended in their cars for several hours — one in blistering heat and one in the March chill.
In both cases, Weingarten uses specific events to explore profound questions: Have harried, overworked Americans lost their ability to notice beauty? And what is the line between an unforgivable crime and a horrifying mistake?
“The Beating Heart” is excerpted from Weingarten’s new book, “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America,” (published this week by Blue Rider Press). In that work, too, Weingarten uses specific, often small, events, to explore a timeless and eternal question. In this case, he says, he wonders “whether, in the insistent gyre of human experience, there even is such a thing as ‘an ordinary day.’”Weingarten’s inventiveness and empathy are manifest in “The Beating Heart.” It describes the tragic equation that links a murder-suicide to a young and poor single mother who became, surprisingly, one of the longest-living transplant patients on Earth. The narrative is discursive, circling back and forth from personal to medical history, around time and place and unforgettable major and minor characters, but never dizzying the reader. Weingarten is always in complete control, juggling multiple facets of his story without ever dropping one.
The resulting narrative is as elegant as it is intense: 11,000 words built along the spine of the hours-long operation to remove Willey’s heart and sew it into Baisey’s chest.
Weingarten is as knowing about the surgery and the history of heart transplant surgery as he is about the obsessive personality of Willey, who, faced with rejection, kills his girlfriend and then himself. For that part of the story, Weingarten draws on recollections from the girlfriend’s mother and a cache of Willey’s increasingly disturbed letters. To help lay readers understand the medical journey both patients and doctors are on, he wields metaphors and analogies like a deft scalpel.
We reached out by email to Weingarten to learn more about the origin of his book, the structure of “The Beating Heart” and the role of his editor. It has been edited for clarity.
Where did the idea for the book, “One Day,” come from?
Desperation, mostly. I was casting around for an idea for a book, and sent an email to Tom Shroder, my editor at the Post. It said, in its entirety: “I wonder what happened on May 17, 1957.” He called me a second later, and said, “That’s a good idea.” It wasn’t. It took me four years longer than I had anticipated and nearly killed me from stress. (Editor’s note: May 17, 1957, was just a random date that popped into Weingarten’s head. Shroder’s response led to his quest for a truly random date, selected out of a hat by strangers, which led to his book.)
Why did you embark on this seemingly impossible reporting journey?
I loved the conceit — that there is power in the ordinary, and sometimes extraordinary power — if you dig deeply. In essence, that there is no such thing as ordinary. It was a stunt, at its heart, but I love stunts.
How did you find all the characters for your story “The Beating Heart” some 30 years after the fact? Was it difficult?
Not really. I first connected with the surgeon, Ed Lefrak, who put me in touch with most other people. The hardest interview was Ursula Ermert, the mother of the murdered young woman. I hated to make her relive this. The hardest person to find was Rich Lieb (a friend whom Karen had reached out to romantically as she was leaving Mark). I found him in the police report. Ursula hadn’t even known of him; that her daughter had found a new love in the final days, and that it was related, tragically, to her death.
How did you determine the structure of “The Beating Heart? Did you consider other approaches and if so, why did you abandon them?
The structure of that story was determined by the structure of the larger book. The book is sequential, starting at the beginning of the day, and moving forward. But the concept was moving back and forward in time — sort of literally adding a fourth dimension to the narrative.
“The Beating Heart” is about more than a murder-suicide, an operation and the people involved. It is also about the history of heart transplantation, told through the prism of one donor and one recipient. Was that deliberate?
Sure. I wanted the greatest breadth possible to the storytelling.
How long did you spend reporting this story?
This was the first story I did. Took roughly six months. There are 19 more stories in the book, some equally complex.
What other work were you doing while reporting and writing the book?
My regular humor column in the magazine, mostly. Also a weekly chat.
The story brims with the confidence of a veteran storyteller. How did your work as a columnist influence the writing of the story?
Only in the sense that being able to try for humor regularly kind of underwrites the ability to bury myself in tragedy. If I ONLY did stories on babies who die in cars or women killed by their boyfriends, I’d be a melancholic, like Raskolnikov.
Walt Harrington once said memory is a sieve. How can you be confident that your sources’ memories were accurate?
I was constantly testing memories against other memories, against documents, et cetera. At times I had to try to decide among slightly different accounts, based on what seemed most likely to me.
Who edited the story and what influence did they have?
Shroder. He wrote the final two sentences, the lines everyone is talking about. I hate him.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Those two sentences, by the way? No spoiler here. Read the story, with this caveat: It contains some graphic descriptions of the murder scene and the surgery.)