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David’s song: One death, one life and a heart that beats for two families

David Ponder with Graciela Elliott
David Ponder with Graciela Elliott, the mother of Ponder’s heart donor, Juan Carlos Lopez. “I can listen to his heart any time I see David,” she said.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Whenever they meet, Graciela Elliott listens to her son’s heartbeat in the chest of David Ponder. ‘I am happy my son lives in his body,’ she said

A singer, songwriter and guitarist, David Ponder knows the importance of a strong, steady beat. But this was ridiculous.

“My heart now, it’s so strong,” said Ponder, 60, a Poway resident who in August 2016 underwent a successful heart transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “The first night home, it was beating so hard it woke me up.”

This Christmas, David Ponder is dazzled by the gifts he’s received from strangers: a life-sustaining organ and a life-enhancing relationship. He’s alive because a car wreck killed a man he’d never met, Coronado’s Juan Carlos Lopez, 26. When surgeons removed Lopez’s heart and transplanted it in Ponder’s chest, two families were stitched together in sorrow and joy.

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Months after the surgery, Ponder visited Lopez’s mother. The bond was instant.

“Both of us were crying and crying and crying, hugging each other,” said Graciela Elliott, Lopez’s mother. “After that, I listened to his heartbeat.”

In life, Juan Carlos Lopez was a doting father and co-owner of a landscaping company. As Elliott reminded Ponder between his sets at House of Blues last weekend, Lopez was a vibrant personality with numerous passions.

“When I listen to David’s music, I can’t help but be happy,” she said. “My son loved music when he was alive.”

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Juan Carlos Lopez
Juan Carlos Lopez about a week before he was killed in a 2016 traffic collision.
(Graciela Elliott)

‘His death brought me here’

Ponder was 5 when he first strummed a bass guitar, 12 when he first performed professionally. A North Carolina native, he settled in Nashville and carved out a career as a session musician, a headliner, a songwriter and sound engineer. While he worked with the greats — Dolly Parton, Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys — his longest association has been with his own trio, Ponder, Sykes & Wright.

For more than 45 years, that group has specialized in country-tinged Christian music. Part of their repertoire is “Holding Things Close,” a ballad that begins with a loved one driving away, perhaps forever, before focusing on a prodigal’s return to the fold. “His death brought me here,” the song continues, focusing on the redemptive nature of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

That, at least, was the songwriter’s original intent.

When the trio reunited last year to record several songs, Ponder found “Close” too close for comfort.

“When I got to the lyrics,” Ponder said, “it meant something different. I’m bawling in the studio.”

On Sunday, July 31, 2016, Graciela Elliott was in church when her phone rang. Her husband, James Elliott, was calling to say that her son was in a hospital, near death.

Juan Carlos had been driving home from his cousins’ house early that Sunday morning, when he fell asleep and crashed into a tree. He died Aug. 1, a month short of his 27th birthday, leaving behind a 4-year-old daughter, Vida Mía, and the landscaping business he had just opened.

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“He had two jobs already scheduled,” his mother said. “He was so proud.”

While renewing his driver’s license, Juan Carlos had agreed to be an organ donor. The accident destroyed his pancreas, but doctors were able to harvest the man’s heart, liver, kidney, tissue and other organs. Graciela, herself an organ donor, took comfort in the fact that her son’s death may have saved several lives. In her sorrow, this mother kept coming back to a nagging question.

“I wanted to know who had his heart,” she said.

David Ponder
During a break in his recent performance at the House of Blues, David Ponder looks at a photo of his donor on Graciela Elliott’s phone.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A new family

Ponder had his first heart attack at 39. Heart disease has killed generations of Ponders, so the resulting quadruple bypass surgery seemed more of a delaying action than a cure.

He resumed performing — an Eagles tribute band here, playing behind Ricky Skaggs there — but he was living on borrowed time. Six years ago, his doctor ordered him to stop working and go on disability.

In 2014, when he and his wife moved to San Diego County, Ponder hoped to revive his career. First, though, he needed an aortic valve replacement. In April 2016, he wheeled into a Sharp Memorial operating room and was sedated.

“When I woke up, I felt the same,” he said.

He needed more than a new valve. He needed a new heart.

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The transplant came on Aug. 5, 2016. Ponder seemed to recover quickly, leaving the hospital only two weeks after surgery, but medications and anxiety wore him down. In the first month, post-transplant, he lost 50 pounds. His bank account also was becoming dangerously thin, as he was too weak to perform for months, and he fretted that his career might never recover.

“People forget you if you are not around,” he said. “When you keep saying no, it’s not too long before they stop calling you.”

Another worry nagged at him. He had filled out the paperwork, asking to meet with his donor’s family, but there had been no response. Most families decline this offer — “It’s too hard,” Ponder said — but he had hopes. When months passed in silence, he called Lifesharing, the nonprofit that supervises transplants. They had lost his letter; it had never gone to the donor’s family.

A new letter reached its destination. In July 2017, David and Jadie Ponder pulled up outside Graciela Elliott’s home in Coronado. There was a banner outside: “Welcome, David!”

“It was so emotional,” said Jadie Ponder, David’s wife. “It was a beautiful moment, mixed with many different emotions. Sometimes I can’t look at them without crying — I’m crying right now.”

“We embraced for about 15 minutes,” Ponder said, “both bawling like babies.”

And it wasn’t just Graciela Elliott who immediately adopted the Ponders. The dead man’s little daughter, now 7, wrapped these strangers in bear hugs. Lopez’s sister, meanwhile, came forward with a little surprise.

“I want you to meet my son,” Amy Lopez said, holding out a month-old infant. “David Juan Carlos.”

David Ponder
David Ponder performs at the House of Blues.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘It’s a trip’

Graciela and James Elliott left town this Christmas, so the Ponders won’t spend the holiday with them. They were together the previous two Christmases and celebrate birthdays, Thanksgivings and other special occasions as one surgically constructed family. Graciela, 48, always puts her ear to Ponder’s chest, listening to a younger man’s strong, steady beat.

Because the families are apart this Christmas, on Saturday they attended the House of Blues. For the past few months, Ponder and Sam Hosking perform in the House’s Country Brunch Live. His schedule is pretty full, with gigs around the county and in Las Vegas, and he’s also recording again. The title of a recent Ponder-penned Christian song: “He Was The First Donor.”

“It just took off,” he said of his post-transplant career. “I’m working five, six times more than ever in San Diego.”

The powerful ticking of his new ticker no longer awakens Ponder, but there are still nights when he lies in bed, marveling at life. “Man,” he tells himself, “I’ve got somebody else’s heart in my body, keeping me alive. It’s a trip.”

And while beating in a new body, that heart is still attached to the original owner’s family.

“He’s a wonderful man,” Graciela Elliott said of Ponder. “I am very happy my son lives in his body.”

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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