Ben Fruge's first wife died of cancer.
Now, sadly, he faced the likelihood of losing the woman who had given him another chance at love.
Ben had pursued -- and wooed -- Mary, a widowed friend. One morning on his way to work, the Fort Worth man placed a quart of milk and a bouquet on her porch and hid nearby, waiting to see her look of girlish delight when she discovered his surprise.
"Ben's infatuated," a church priest told her. "He's just like a puppy dog."
A short time later, the personification of Ben's ardent affection appeared outside Mary's door.
A barking toy dog gazed up at her.
Its tail was wagging like a windshield wiper.
The senior couple wed, a second marriage for both. Three years later -- in September 1990 -- Ben's wife lay critically ill in a Dallas hospital after a rapid succession of heart attacks.
Mary's only chance of leaving Baylor University Medical Center alive was transplant surgery. The procedure was relatively new at that time, but the couple agreed to pursue the option, and Mary's name was placed on a list of patients with end-stage organ failure.
Mary, then 61, required a small heart to fit her petite frame -- and she needed it soon.
The prayerful wait, and suspense, began.
"It really was do-or-die," she said 20 happy years later.
The former nurse's blue eyes brightened as she related the series of events that followed. Thanks to what Ben calls "a miracle," a donor heart was found. His wife's life was saved and her years -- and their marriage -- extended beyond all expectations.
"It was like a new motor in a '61 Volkswagen," Ben joked.
Friday (Sept. 24) marks the 20th anniversary of Mary Fruge's heart transplant.
"If you told me 20 years ago I would still be here, I wouldn't have believed it," she said. "And neither would my doctors."
Of the 26 people who received donor hearts at Baylor University Medical Center that year, only Fruge (Fru-jay) and one other recipient are still alive.
Her friends are eager to celebrate the anniversary. One neighbor wanted to host a party.
But Mary will tell you she doesn't need balloons or packages with shiny ribbon to commemorate the milestone and remind her of her good fortune and life's endless possibilities.
She has all that is important to her, everything she wants: her home, her family, her church, her volunteer work. Best of all, she has her husband, her traveling companion, her playful and dearest friend.
The past two decades have been among the best years of her life.
She still has that toy dog.
And her heart -- a priceless gift -- keeps on beating.
"That's enough," Mary, 81, told a visitor. "Don't you agree?"
Telltale trouble signs
At 47, Mary was seemingly the picture of health when she went to her doctor for a checkup. Tests revealed that one coronary artery was 95 percent blocked.
"I was shocked," she recalled. "I had been going and blowing. At that age, [heart trouble] is not something I was worried about."
She underwent successful bypass surgery and experienced no other problems until August 1990, when she awoke early one morning with chest pains. She could barely walk from the bed to the bathroom. Her husband called 911. Mary spent the next few weeks at Harris Methodist Hospital, where she had several more coronary episodes that killed one-third of the heart muscle.
One cardiologist advised the couple to make funeral arrangements.
Another was somewhat more hopeful. "Have you thought about a transplant?" he asked.
About 10 days after Mary was transferred to Dallas and placed on a waiting list, one of her cardiologists appeared in her room smiling.
"We've got a heart," he announced, "and it's beautiful."
Working against the clock, a transplant team performed the delicate procedure that same day. After the lengthy operation, Ben stood outside a recovery room and looked anxiously through a window.
A mask covered the patient's nose and mouth. Her face and hands were badly swollen from high intravenous dosages of prednisone, an anti-rejection medication.
In isolation, Mary met Ben's gaze.
She lifted her right hand and wiggled her fingers in a wave.
"I hurt some days," Ben Fruge, 84, confessed.
He looked at Mary. "I know she does, too."
The retirees have admittedly slowed down in recent years but remain an active couple.
On Thursday mornings, Mary and Ben volunteer at WestAid, a nonprofit organization that provides food and emergency services to thousands of needy people on Fort Worth's west side.
She interviews clients. He works in the food pantry.
For years Mary has found fulfillment as a "giver" and "doer," as she calls herself. The couple participated in The Salvation Army's Angel Tree project and supported LifeGift, an organ procurement organization that recovers organs and tissues for individuals in Tarrant and more than 100 other Texas counties.
Mary became the legal guardian of a mentally handicapped woman and cared for her for 12 years.
"There's a reason I'm still here," she said. "I like to hope it's because I've tried to live a good, decent life, and do for others."
Mary will take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life. Even though the medications are associated with an increased risk of cancer, the survival rate for heart transplant recipients is almost 90 percent after one year and 72 percent after five years.
An Ohio man lived 31 years after receiving a donor heart, a world record for survival after a single heart transplant.
He died last year of cancer at age 51.
Mary faithfully exercises three times a week and watches her diet, but she isn't preoccupied with thoughts about mortality.
A devout Catholic, she is at peace, more hopeful than fearful of the future.
"We've never put years on it," she said of the passage of time since her transplant.
"I just figure whatever the Good Lord gives me, that's what I'm going to get."
'Just a child'
Back then the doctors didn't want them to know, she said.
But through one of Ben's friends the Fruges obtained the name. And so, one autumn day shortly after Mary's postoperative stay in the hospital, the couple drove to a little cemetery in North Texas.
"I just wanted to see for myself," Mary said.
Walking among the headstones, she found it: a small, plain marker with the name of the person whose heart beats inside her to this day.
Mary knelt by the grave. The ground still soft, she said a silent thank-you to the stranger, a murder victim, who one day before the transplant was shot in the head and declared brain-dead.
"Just a child," Mary said.
A 12-year-old boy.