I knew I’d write about George Senerchia the first time I heard about him. Since undergoing a heart transplant 12 years ago, George has devoted his life to promoting organ donation by building barns. I met George in his antique Colonial in Northford, CT., and he captivated my daughter and me with his story. We talked with George for two hours despite his ongoing struggle with Lyme disease. Here’s his extraordinary story:
Funny things happened to George Senerchia after he received a heart transplant on Nov. 6, 2004.
He began craving chocolate, listening to ’80s rock bands like Whitesnake, and buying shoes. Tons of them. Pre-transplant, George had three or four pairs. Now, dozens line his home: hiking boots and shoes, sneakers and clogs.
“It’s a real problem . . . another pair just arrived today,” says George, 63, who scours Ebay for deals. “Help me!”
Chalk up the changes to his “Boston girl,” a 51-year-old woman who died of an aneurysm, and donated her organs to save others. George has tried to find his donor’s relatives to thank them, but so far his search has been fruitless. The only thing he knows is her heart came from a Boston hospital, she was a mother, and she had a very strong heart. She and George were the same age and miraculously, her heart was a perfect match.
George says having a mom’s heart carries huge responsibility. It’s why he spends his life promoting organ donation through his group the Northford Timber Framers Transplant Fund aka “The Heart of the Barn.” An expert timber framer, George designs barns and raises them in two days with about 50 volunteers. His latest rose over Father’s Day weekend, when dozens of men and women filled his neighbor Heather’s backyard and built a two-story barn in 48 hours.
Heather’s barn is the 56th built by George and the Northford Timber Framers, whose slogan is “Be a Miracle: Be a Donor.” George teaches a three-day workshop every April in nearby Guilford, CT.. After classwork, students apprentice for one year and help build a barn. George doesn’t tell them immediately about his transplant. When he does, everyone’s in tears.
The most striking thing about George’s group is the number of women on the crew. After hearing loved ones describe the joy in building barns to help others, spouses and girlfriends take George’s course too. The barn-raisings kick off with donations to local residents who need help. Heather’s donation went to a teen-ager waiting for a double-lung transplant; a man with pancreatic cancer; a boy with Cystic Fibrosis, and a young woman who adopted her drug-addicted friend’s young children.
Since founding the Northford Timber Framers, George has raised about $80,000, donating every cent to charity. About 150 people from all walks of life have taken his course. Why timber framing?
“It’s something real” in our disposable society, he says. It dates back to building techniques from our nation’s original settlers and waves of immigrants who brought unique methods from their homelands. He insists there’s something magical about barns, from their unique scent to ties to the past.
George has a special relationship with his Boston girl. For the first two years after the transplant, he had her dreams. He knows this because he didn’t recognize any of the places or people in them. He also talks to her and prays for her every day, hoping he’s living a life worthy of her sacrifice. “I don’t want her to think I’m a slug,” he confides.
George was an active, healthy 44-year-old when he was diagnosed with acute cardiomyopathy. After struggling with symptoms for six months, he went to his doctor and learned he was in heart failure.
George says it’s hard to describe heart failure, but says imagine feeling like you’re always gasping for air. Though his diagnosis was grim, he says he spent little time on self-pity, noting he’s always been positive and a fighter.
George underwent numerous heart procedures, but was told he would need a heart transplant. While waiting, he volunteered to have a Jarvik 2000 artificial heart. For nine months, he had an electrical cord running from his artificial heart to his abdomen to attach to a power source.
The long wait for a new heart gave George plenty of time to think. He says he made peace with his situation and realized his fate was out of his hands. He reached a point of contentment, a feeling that he’d be OK with whatever happened to him.
During the wait, he came up with the idea for the “Heart of the Barn.” He realized that he was a lot like an old barn, in need of repair and restoration to survive. He began his group in 2002 while waiting for a heart.
Today, George looks about a decade younger than his age. He’s lean, athletic and fearless, directing his crew while standing on the roof of Heather’s barn. He didn’t purposely wear a woman’s straw hat . . . he just wanted to shield his skin from the sun. But his choice is fitting given the heart beating in his chest.
Heather tells me she built the barn mainly “to store my lawnmower.” But what she got is nothing like a garden shed. George designed a spectacular two-story barn suited for a guest house, home office or great space to savor nature. Whatever its future, one thing is certain: the Boston girl lives on. Like all of George’s barns, the initials “BG” are carved into one of its beams.