Karl Baylor spent much of 2019 waiting to find out whether he’d live or die. His heart was failing. It was only a matter of time.
Since February, Baylor, 62, has been staying at Salt Lake City’s George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center, one of five VA medical centers that provide heart transplants to Veterans.
But ill health did little to slow Baylor down or dampen his enthusiasm for life. Those who know Baylor said his real heart – personified in his buoyant Texan personality – was perfect the way it was.
“Karl’s a character. He’s a total character,” Carolyn Redd, one of Baylor’s nurses, said. “Karl’s full of life – so much so that we had to go chase him.”
Armed with a contagious personality and room-filling baritone, Baylor passed much of his time at the VA by singing to anyone who listened. His showmanship lifted spirits, transforming the Vietnam-era Army combat engineer into a local celebrity.
Baylor had been struggling with low blood pressure for some time when, in 2014, doctors broke the news that he would need a new heart. He arrived at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City from Texas in July 2018. There, he was attached to a machine that would keep his blood flowing until a suitable heart was found.
His singing is “the most beautiful gift”
As he waited for his new heart, Baylor began to sing, captivating those around him.
While it was a small gesture, staffers said Baylor’s voice lightened the steps around campus. His shows, twice a day just outside the hospital entrance, became something Veterans and staff looked forward to.
Nurse Micaela Brandelmayr called his songs, “the most beautiful gift.”
“You may have gone through something through the week or you just may not feel like coming to work today,” Baylor said. “But that song has a way of touching you in some kind of way. That’s why I do it.”
Baylor was particularly fond of Brandelmayr, whom he called “Momma Bear.” He said she reminds him of his mother. “You touched me girl,” Baylor, his normally composed voice breaking, told her. “Ain’t too many people that can get down in there.”
A heart became available in July
Baylor, reflecting on the gravity of the moment, said, “You don’t have control. You want to cry. You want to laugh. When you laugh, you’re reminding yourself that somebody is giving you an opportunity to live. When you cry, you’re reminded somebody had to pass. For you to live, somebody had to die.”
He got his heart – and a second chance at life – in August at the University of Utah Medical Center. Shortly after surgery, still tied to an army of tubes and machines that kept him alive, Baylor remained ever-positive.
“I haven’t felt my heart in seven years,” he said. “What I’m feeling now, it’s like somebody is in here.”
Baylor plans to stay in Salt Lake City for a while and visit his new VA family. And he’ll bring his voice with him.
“I did not expect when I raised my hand in 1974 that the VA would take care of me in a way I would never have expected,” Baylor said. “I can keep living. I can take my grandchildren fishing, and singing, doing all the things I’ve been wanting to do, but do it with strength.”
T.S. Jarmusz is a public affairs specialist with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.