A Florida man was in the operation room, his chest cavity open for a transplant, when the plane carrying his soon-to-be organs flew into a flock of birds, caught fire and made an emergency landing. His body was sewn back up, his failing organs still inside.
Moe Ricks feels at home in the hospital.
The linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and quiet waiting rooms aren’t new to him. He was only 9 years old when he was first hospitalized. Then at 17. And again in his 30s.
At 48, Ricks called UF Health Shands home for four months. By August, his friends and family back home in Jacksonville, his nurses and his doctors had all become infatuated with his story.
Aug. 9 marked two months and 24 days in the hospital for Ricks. But his room was different that day. Studio lights were propped up around his bed. Cameras on tripods pointed toward him.
He was going to share his story. In a month or two, his story will be told in a short documentary the Gainesville hospital is creating about his experience as a patient in the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital.
The chain of events that would land Ricks on an operating table began long before he checked into Shands on May 16. When he was born, a blockage in his urethra caused his right kidney to swell to three times its normal size. When he was first treated for high blood pressure, he was a teenager.
His heart had been overworked his whole life. Since 2005, congestive heart failure has hindered Ricks’ heart from pumping blood as efficiently as it should.
The only apparent signs of his condition are a thin clear wire that enters his abdomen and a small black bag that hangs over his shoulder and rests across the front of his body. Inside are two batteries that control his heart pump, called a left ventricular assist device.
His thin body shakes slightly, but his raspy voice is steady. His laugh is unrestrained.
At night, he plugs his batteries into a wall outlet to keep himself running. Rather than feeling his own pulse, he hears the hum of a motor pumping the blood out of his heart.
Ricks knew his lifetime of health complications finally caught up to him when he began to throw up bile one morning this summer. But a trip to an emergency room in Jacksonville for what doctors thought was an appendix problem ended up with an ambulance ride to Shands a week later.
He soon learned he would need a new heart and kidney to live.
After two months of spending each day in the hospital, unsure of when he would leave, Ricks received news on July 10 that gave him hope: A new heart and kidney were going to be his the next day.
Remembering the morning of July 11 still makes Ricks cry.
“They’re going to take my heart out,” Ricks recalled telling his mother, Nadine Ricks, in the hospital that day.
His voice broke when he spoke about it.
“It’s your heart. It’s your only one,” he said.
The last thing Ricks remembered before the surgery was a mask covering his face. He took a deep breath. He felt the mask suction to his skin. Then it went dark.
When Ricks awoke in a drug-induced haze, he said he knew something was off. In his foggy state of mind, he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.
“They woke me up and nobody wanted to tell me anything at first,” Ricks said.
While lying in the operation room, chest cavity opened, the plane transporting his soon-to-be organs flew into a flock of birds. An engine caught fire. Smoke and flames seeped into the cockpit. A doctor called his family to say goodbye.
The plane, packed with the transplant’s procurement team, made an emergency landing on a small airstrip in an undisclosed place. Ricks’ body was sewn back up, his failing organs still inside.
His mother initially thought there was an issue with her son’s body and that he may not be able to have a transplant at all when she heard the procedure wasn’t completed. When she and her husband, Curtis Ricks, returned to the heart hospital, they learned about the flock of birds.
“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “I’ve learned to try to live one day at a time and just trust God. That’s all I can do is just live one day at a time, and I know something good is going to come out of it,” she said.
Ricky Kendall, a musician-in-residence with Shands’ Arts in Medicine, said even though he is referred to patients throughout the hospital every day, he rarely meets people like Ricks as he makes his rounds playing music for patients in their rooms.
Kendall said he and Ricks learned they share a love for music as Ricks has been an audio engineer in Jacksonville since 1985. Similarly, Ricks said he knew he wanted to work on a song with Kendall and a second musician-in-residence Michael Claytor after hearing them play.
The idea for an original song did not come until Ricks woke up from his transplant that never happened.
Before they could ask, he wanted to talk about his trauma and turn it into music.
“He wondered what it was like for the pilots and doctors who were about to crash,” Kendall said. “I really thought that was pretty cool. He was immediately thinking about other people, and then he said he wanted to write about it.”
Kendall and Claytor took notes while Ricks explained his emotions and thoughts when he woke up from the surgery. The musicians headed back to their office to write a melody.
The three recorded the song in Ricks’ hospital room the day he left Shands. Ricks asked his doctor if he could wait an extra day before leaving; he had to record.
Music has been the driving force for Ricks throughout his life. In November, his name will again be placed on the top of the waiting list for a kidney and a heart. But in the meantime, he is slowly returning to the studio to finish mixing his song, called “Waiting.”
“It’s like the old saying — it soothes the soul,” he said. “The heartbeat is a rhythm. We’re kind of wired for that.”
This story originally published to ocala.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.