Tough, brave Modesto transplant recipient still making a difference

jjardine@modbee.comApril 20, 2013 

— In the final hours of his life, Brandon Dybdahl gave orders.

The 26-year-old Modesto man told his younger brother, Keaton, to keep his website going to promote organ donation and raise money for the cause.

He told his 9-year-old sister, Chloe, she must lay off candy and sugar for a month. Try vegetables instead.

He ordered out for Taco Bell even though he hadn't been able to eat solid food for nearly two months as his condition deteriorated.

And he told his twin sister, Brittany, to make sure the others carried out his orders after he was gone.

With family and doctors at his bedside last Monday, Brandon's frail and failing heart stopped, started and stopped again before making one last show of force by returning to 11 beats per minute.

Then, at 12:05 p.m., he took his last breath, and his 23-year reign as one of the longest-living heart transplant recipients in history ended in a sea of tears, grief and relief.

Tears because Brandon knew it was time to go and told the doctors to turn off pumps that only delayed the inevitable.

Grief because they had all been through so much together: triumphs and setbacks, joys and fears.

Relief because he had been in great pain, and they know he is with God and in pain no more.

Brandon challenged death from the day he came into the world and beat it for 26 years.

Born without a left ventricle in his heart, he wasn't expected to survive his first week. He spent most of his first year at Children's Hospital Oakland.

"They wanted me to just let him go," mom Becky Gould said. "But that child's spirit was telling me he wanted us to try something. He was a strong-willed child with a desire for life."

They tried something. Brandon received a donor heart at Stanford in October 1990. Two weeks later, he cruised the hospital's halls on his tricycle. He went on to live a mostly active life, playing baseball, going to school — as normal as a transplant recipient can be, considering the never-ending tests, anti-rejection drugs, doctor appointments, constant threat of infection and other pitfalls.

Sister Brittany, older by three minutes, became her brother's protector.

Brandon survived a major scare when he was in seventh grade, kept alive by machinery.

"His life was always so disrupted," mom Becky said. "We said goodbye to him when he was 13."

They even picked out a funeral home. Then, remarkably, he bounced back.

"They couldn't get that machine off of him fast enough," she said.

After moving the family from the Bay Area to Modesto, his parents split up, and both later remarried.

Brandon went on to graduate from Beyer High in 2005 and attended Modesto Junior College. He worked in restaurants. He helped his mom with her marketing firm. He spent a summer working with his father, Doug Dybdahl, who is a project manager for the firm that paints the Golden Gate Bridge. And he became an ambassador for the California Transplant Donor Network, which he'll continue to support through his website, www.shortyboy.com.

Although he had his transplant at Stanford, his follow-up care came from the transplant specialists at Kaiser Permanente's Santa Clara Medical Center.

"He was a terrible patient," dad Doug said. "He was blunt with the doctors and the nurses."

The behavior, Doug said, was born of the fear of being in the hospital environment, which generally meant trouble. But that changed in 2001 after Brandon was baptized at Crosspoint Community Church in Modesto.

Brandon's cardiologist certainly noticed the change in his attitude.

"He really grew up a lot in the last few years," Dr. Dana Weisshaar said. "I had my challenges with him. But I always have a soft spot for people with strength and courage and resilience. He was an incredible fighter, and I'm glad I got the chance to see him grow up."

Brandon became friends with Chris Boyd, Kaiser Permanente's senior vice president and area manager, who noticed one day that the patient was unhappy. A techie at heart, Brandon missed Internet access in the hospital. He couldn't stay in touch with his buddies via Skype or play interactive games. Boyd and the hospital's tech support staff took care of that.

They brought in laptop and desktop computers and turned his room into a cyberlab. They provided high-speed access, and it made his stay at the hospital as pleasant as it could be. The tech types benefited as well.

"Helping Brandon was a true blessing," IT Operations Manager Tony Warner said in a news release. "Seldom in IT do we get an opportunity to actually serve a patient directly and enhance his or her recovery."

With his condition deteriorating in March, Brandon decided he wanted to see one last San Francisco Giants game at AT&T Park. He arranged for tickets for the April 22 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Weisshaar, though, told dad Doug that Brandon probably wouldn't last that long. Doug's employer gave him four lower box seat tickets — for Brandon; Doug and his wife, Michelle; and kid sister Chloe — for the April 7 game against St. Louis.

Hospital officials, meanwhile, contacted the Giants to make arrangements to deliver him to the stadium. The team provided tickets for Weisshaar and the three paramedics who accompanied him. Because the ticket holders of the seats directly behind Brandon were no-shows, Brandon's family and hospital entourage sat together.

"In clinics and hospitals, we don't get to socialize with the patients and their families," the cardiologist said. "This was special."

That same day, the Giants received their World Series championship rings, while their fans got replicas. Brandon got his ring and much, much more.

Pablo Sandoval — The Panda — came over to sign a ball. A spectator sitting next to them quietly went up to the concession area and bought Brandon a shirt and card signed by pitcher Tim Lincecum and a Buster Posey- autographed bat. The club gave him a card signed by Posey.

Former Giant great Will Clark wrote "To a great Giant fan" on a baseball, and the club welcomed Brandon on the JumboTron.

"It was a great final experience," Doug Dybdahl said. "It was the game of his life. The best day."

Brandon went out eight days later, a winner on all fronts.

"He beat the odds," Weisshaar said. "Looking back at the statistics, children transplant recipients from 1989 and 1990 went on to live eight to 12 years. He blew the doors off of that, living well beyond the average."

In the days since Brandon's death, www.shortyboy.com is up and running, thanks to brother Keaton.

Little sister Chloe is shunning sugar and eating vegetables.

Twin sister Brittany is doing her job, which is to make sure they do theirs.

After all, he left orders.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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