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Erik Compton continues giving back

6/18/2014 - Golf Erik Compton

CROMWELL, Conn. -- Perspective in life can be a delicate dance. If anyone on the PGA Tour can relate, it's Erik Compton.

His well-chronicled tale forces him to wear two hats every day. The first is as a professional golfer, the realization of a childhood dream. The second, as a two-time heart transplant recipient, was something many would consider a nightmare thrust upon him, first as a 12-year-old, and again in 2008, when his second operation gave him his third heart.

If his daily dose of medications isn't reminder enough, Compton actively chooses to relive those terrible times for a higher purpose. By seeking others who are experiencing the same trauma he and his family have, he aims to give others hope with the goal of bringing awareness to the cause that saved his life.

"It's not always easy because there's no guarantees," Compton said. "That's why I'm promoting organ donation. I want everyone to have the same chance I had to live life. And I would not have been able to do the things I have been able to do if it wasn't for the fact that I had a heart transplant."

In southern New England this week for the Travelers Championship and talking about the #DonateLife campaign, the 34-year-old who finished tied for second at the U.S. Open went to Hartford Hospital to meet with patients on the transplant floor, something he does often when on the road playing golf.

For those with a cynical mind -- maybe he was capitalizing on his high profile after his performance at Pinehurst and looking for a little self-aggrandizement -- think again. The visit had been scheduled for weeks.

There is no photo-op mentality in Compton. When a television crew hooked up his microphone, he specifically said he wanted to have a one-on-one moment with the patients with no cameras or media around.

Compton walked into the room with his fire-engine-red pants and white shirt and immediately struck up a conversation with Shawn Fullard, who needs a second heart transplant as well as a new kidney.

As shocking as that might sound, from 2002 to 2011 there were 861 two-time heart transplant patients, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. Overall, nearly 32,000 heart transplants were performed in the United States since 2000, according to government data.

Compton asked Fullard about the medicines she's taking, looking over the IV tubes next to her hospital bed. They commiserated about how one medicine in particular makes you want to eat through house and home. That's when Compton told Fullard that he weighed just 129 pounds when he got out of the hospital after his second transplant.

The connection between the two feels real, if for nothing else because each has walked the halls in those same drafty hospital gowns waiting for another chance at life.

As he exited the room, Compton told her to "stay strong." He left the obligatory golf glove autograph for Fullard and her husband, Willard, as a keepsake from the visit.

Going to places like the 10th floor at Hartford Hospital, Compton admits it gets emotional. A clear, well thought-out personal defense mechanism helps him grind through it because he knows right now, after that stellar showing at Pinehurst, he's "the flavor of the week" and his megaphone just got bigger.

"It's difficult, but I put the armor [up] because I'm the guy that's trying to help and trying to get the word out," Compton said. "So to have a week like I did this week, I'm able to share more about my story and educate more people and help people.

"And it's not just transplants. It's a story of never giving up. There's many times when I could have easily given up. To be able to help people to overcome any kind of disease [or loss] ... people suffer from depression and heck, I have as well, so to get up and move forward is what it's all about."

Compton then walked into a separate room to wait for George Petro Jr. from Waterbury, Connecticut. A small bruise on the right side of Petro's neck is quite apparent, and Compton immediately asked if it was "for the biopsy." He was as comfortable talking with Petro, who waited 169 days to get his new heart on June 9 after entering the hospital on Christmas Eve 2013, as he was reading Pinehurst No. 2's lightning-fast greens.

Compton and Petro took turns apologizing -- Compton for the number of media surrounding them, Petro for getting so emotional. Petro wore a surgical mask, with the danger of infection being high so soon after the transplant. Everyone entering Petro's and Fullard's rooms was required to thoroughly wash their hands.

Even though he knew he shouldn't, Petro lowered his mask to wipe away tears of joy at meeting Compton as a nearby nurse carried a heart-monitoring unit.

Compton also met some of the staff who performs these life-saving operations. When prompted to sit behind a table to talk to the transplant team of doctors and nurses to sign some autographs, Compton wasn't interested and instead chose to mingle with everyone.

Though they've never seen his charts or prescribed his meds, the transplant team owned the look of a proud parent, given what Compton has achieved outside hospital walls. It is a satisfaction only a team that pulls off these miracles roughly 20 times a year in central Connecticut could know and understand.

As for Compton the golfer, he's dreamed about being in the position he's in right now, both on and off the course.

"Things that I went through as a kid, you know, they prepared me for tough moments," said Compton, who played only seven holes early Tuesday at TPC River Highlands in preparation for this week's Travelers Championship. "But realistically ... the U.S. Open is tough, but it's not like it's a life-threatening situation. You're trying to figure out how to hit a bunker shot on 18. It's a hand-and-eye coordination game that we play.

"But you have to be ready to accept the crowd and the atmosphere that we're playing in is very electric, and that can be very distracting for players if you haven't been through that."

So where does he seem himself next? In a golf context, he's not shy to think big.

"It would be a huge goal of mine to play in the Ryder Cup," said Compton, who currently resides 19th in the standings. The top nine automatically qualify for the biennial competition, which this September will be held in Scotland. "It would be a huge goal of mine to be a tournament winner on the PGA Tour, and whether that's a major or a PGA Tour event, whichever comes first, I mean, I'd love to win.

"But winning comes as a result of hitting fairways and hitting the shots that you're supposed to hit. You know, I don't get too caught up with it. I know when I go to the first tee I have to hit the shot that I need to, and the rest comes with that. But you do picture yourself in big moments, making a big putt, because that's what we all live for."

Compton is in the midst of his best season as a pro. He stands 37th on the PGA Tour money list with $1,652,563 in earnings (more than double his previous best year of 2013.) If the tour still gave out a comeback player of the year award, they might as well close down the voting until Compton retired. How could you vote for anyone else?

After being one of only three golfers to finish under par at Pinehurst No. 2, Compton said his phone blew up with texts after the U.S. Open, including a message from the Miami Heat's Ray Allen. When pressed for more names or stories, he declined to elaborate, but you got the sense that many around the world are following his story and reached out to the former University of Georgia golfer who was once the No. 1-ranked junior player in the country.

This week, Compton is listed as an 80-1 shot at the Travelers Championship. Given all he has been through inside and outside the ropes, it might not be wise to bet against him.