Panthers owner receives new heart, recovering

CHARLOTTE -- On a night he hoped his team would be playing in the Super Bowl, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got something better – a new heart.

Richardson, 72, underwent heart transplant surgery Sunday at Carolinas Medical Center, where he’d been on a waiting list since mid-December.

Richardson's surgery was confirmed Monday morning by team officials and by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

In a news release, the Panthers said the heart transplant procedure began about 8 p.m. Sunday and ended about 1 a.m.

Surgeons Mark Stiegel and Eric Skipper conducted the procedure, and Stiegel told the Panthers "the donor heart was working well."

A heart transplant patient normally remains in the hospital for a few weeks, and the normal recovery time can be between three and six months. The Panthers said Richardson was resting comfortably Monday morning in the post operative cardiovascular recovery unit.

Richardson was placed on the UNOS (United Network of Organ Sharing) heart transplant waiting list at Carolinas Medical Center in early December. He had not felt well through the fall and received a pacemaker/defibrillator in November. He had undergone coronary bypass surgery in October of 2002. Goodell told the Observer that doctors described the operation as "very successful."

Goodell said he received a call during the first half of Sunday night's Super Bowl between Pittsburgh and Arizona and told that a donor had been found -- and that Richardson, his close friend, was en route to the hospital.

Goodell said he was given updates regularly throughout the game and into the wee hours of the morning. He said it was about 3 a.m. when he received word that the procedure was complete and had been declared a success.

Goodell, speaking this morning after participating in a Super Bowl-related news conference, smiled when asked about the timing -- on the day of the NFL's biggest game and on an evening when his close friend, Steelers' chairman Dan Rooney, was winning a record sixth Super Bowl.

"It brings new meaning to the word(s) 'Super Sunday,' when you see a guy you respect so much and admire so much -- Jerry Richardson -- and he's got a new heart this morning," Goodell said. "Hopefully, that's going to solve the issue for him, and he's going to be back the way we expect him to be back."

The new heart had to come from someone approximately the same size as Richardson, who is 6-feet-4. They must also have compatible blood types.

CMC’s success rate is high for heart transplants. The Charlotte hospital has performed 428 heart transplants since 1986. Of 38 patients who received transplants at CMC from July 1, 2004 to Dec. 31, 2006, 95 percent survived after one month, and 89 percent after a year, the data show. In that same group, two patients died within a month, and four within one year.

Richardson’s health captured the concerns from a legion of fans as his team played toward a 12-4 season and into the playoffs – only to lose in the second round.

A day or two after he checked out of the hospital, Richardson sat in the front row of his open-air suite at Bank of America Stadium, as his wife Rosalind tenderly placed a blanket over his shoulders.

The scene was played out on the stadium Jumbotrons, and the fans cheered the presence of who many call “The Big Cat.”

-- The Charlotte Observer