By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
For 35 years, Mardi Gras was Showtime for John Faust.
In the 1980s, when he was in his mid-20s and tossing around 56-pound police barricades like paperclips, the former New Orleans police officer had the body type of someone from Planet Krypton: part NFL linebacker and part piano mover for American Van Lines.
Every night during the Carnival season, Faust led a SWAT team that would deploy and later restack the 8-foot steel barricades on the St. Charles Avenue parade route, and then repeat the same drill until Ash Wednesday, which was like the first day of summer vacation.
“I had a whole crew running with me, stacking and chaining the barricades,” Faust said. “My son would remember me as bigger than life, where nothing ever bothered me.”
Even though he was diagnosed at age 28 with atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat – there were no symptoms to cause undue concern.
The slowdown began almost imperceptibly. In his late 40s, especially during the barricade run, Faust noticed he was getting short of breath and no longer could change the course of mighty rivers or bend steel in his bare hands.
By 2005, before Katrina, he needed a pacemaker to control his heart rhythms, but by 2016, he was in such a weakened condition that doctors inserted an LVAD – a Left Ventricular Assist Device – a heart pump designed to serve as a bridge until a heart transplant.
The device led to infections, more medications and kidney failure. Faust had melted away to 161 pounds, a 65-pound loss. And with no organ donor in sight, he was fading fast.
“The facts were telling me it was not going well, and death was a strong possibility,” Faust said. “I did, at one point, actually die. I had a heart stoppage – not a heart attack – but the defibrillator fired up and started me up again.”
His friends in the Good Timers social group, many of whom are Catholic, saw what was happening and continued praying. In July 2016, Tom Nenos invited the Good Timers to his River Ridge house to pray for Faust and his wife Phyllis. He blessed them with the Father Seelos crucifix.
About 50 people were there, a scene reminiscent of Luke 5:17-20, where a paralyzed man is carried through the crowd and lowered through the roof to reach Jesus.
“I was in awe when I saw how many people showed up at Tom’s house,” Faust said. “I had to be carried into the house, placed in a chair and then I was carried out of the house. I had never heard of Father Seelos, but I was open-minded. As they began praying, you always hear about the light at the end of the tunnel. The light at the end of the service wasn’t bright, but it was there. Better than that, a calming effect took place. It was nothing I was expecting, nothing I was waiting for. It just happened.”
When local doctors said he was not a candidate for a successful heart and kidney transplant, Phyllis kept praying and working the internet. She found hope in Methodist Hospital in Houston.
“She took it upon herself to find somebody who would operate on me,” Faust said.
They spent a year in Houston, waiting and praying. Moving closer to death.
“I was relegated to bed – no standing, no nothing, bed pans and the whole nine yards,” Faust said.
On June 23, 2017 – the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – Faust received an improbable message. A person, believed to be a teenage boy who had suffered a head injury and died, had a heart and a kidney to offer him life.
“Your best day is going to be someone’s worst day,” Phyllis Faust said.
The donor heart was transplanted on the evening of June 23. Just after midnight, in the early morning hours of June 24 – the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – the donor kidney was implanted. Both organs are functioning incredibly well.
“They just told me it was a very good match,” Faust said.
Because there can be no contact with an anonymous donor’s family for at least a year, Faust, now 62, is praying about what he might say if the family expresses an interest in hearing from the person their loved one saved.
“I would, first, want them to understand how much the sacrifice they have made with their son means to me,” Faust said. “Their child lives on in me now. I want them to know how much I will take care of the gift they have given me. But I don’t know what I would actually say to them right now. I’m just stuck. I don’t want to give them more agony.”
Faust says his relationship with God, always strong, has been transformed.
“Now, it’s a conversation, not going through mechanics,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. When I go to Mass, there’s a peace that comes back. I can’t put my finger on it, but something has changed. My miracle was not one little thing. It was a series of little things. I thank God, I thank my friends and I thank Father Seelos.”
While he was critically ill, Faust missed the drums and the trumpets and the dancing cop of Mardi Gras in 2016 and 2017. He is retired from the NOPD now but has returned, as a civilian, to coordinate the barricade patrol.
“It’s a coming out party, I guess,” Faust said. “It’s saying, ‘I made it back.’ It gives me more belief that things are going to get better as time goes on. I’ve made it this far. I never thought I would see another parade.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.