Forty years ago, at the age of 30, David Garrison had the first of three heart attacks.
While he walked the hallways of St. Clair Hospital, the Canonsburg resident noticed some patients in the hospital were not as fortunate as he was to receive visits from friends and family.
“I saw so many people just lying in bed, and nobody came to visit them,” Garrison recalled.
So, Garrison started dropping by to say hello and offer a kind word.
He noticed every patient he talked to smiled.
Garrison’s interaction with those patients sparked in him a passion for ministering to the sick.
In 1981, Garrison became a volunteer at Canonsburg Hospital through the pastoral care ministry. He has volunteered there ever since – through two more heart attacks, a heart transplant and a kidney transplant.
In addition, Garrison co-leads GriefShare, a grief support group for people struggling with the death of a loved one.
A member of Canonsburg United Presbyterian Church for more than 35 years, Garrison has taught Sunday school and served as an elder, deacon, usher, lay leader, and has been a member of the worship and music teams.
“If you have a pulse, you have a purpose,” said Garrison, who graduated from West Virginia University with a biology degree and worked as an aquatic ecologist and a project manager for environmental consulting companies.
For his outreach to those in need and for making a positive impact on the community, Garrison was chosen as July’s ExtraO-Rdinary People recipient.
Helping people is second-nature to Garrison, said fellow Canonsburg UP Church congregant Valerie Farquharson.
“Every day, Dave faces challenges as he goes about fulfilling his purpose – helping other people face theirs,” said Farquharson. “Many feel privileged to call him ‘friend,’ and turn to him for advice and comfort, confident in his loyalty and discretion.”
The outreach, Garrison said, has shaped his life and given him an opportunity to provide spiritual comfort to others, much the same way the outpouring of support he and his family received during his health crises boosted his spirits.
Garrison and his team of three other volunteers visit as many as four dozen patients during their Wednesday morning ministry.
The Rev. Cathy Peternel, who served for 28 years as chaplain at Canonsburg Hospital until she left in 2018, said Garrison is an inspiration to her and others.
“He is a tremendous encouragement to all of us. His tenacious spirit and determination to take what happened to him and touch the lives of others is inspirational,” said Peternel. “His faith is marvelous. He is so humble, and he is able to reach into the hearts of people and comfort them.”
Garrison was advised to avoid volunteering at the hospital because of the exposure to germs and his susceptibility to infection or illness, but he believes God’s plans for him include ministering to the patients there.
“People are scared when they’re in the hospital. I’m there to encourage them. This whole thing is about ministering to others. We do get people who don’t have a church but they want to talk. You can talk about TV shows, cars, anything,” said Garrison. “A lot of people are faithful and do want prayer, so we pray for them and their family and loved ones. When you leave the room, I think there’s a sigh of relief that someone’s praying for them.”
That Garrison is alive to tend to the needs of others is, he believes, a miracle.
Garrison’s heart was badly damaged following his first heart attack, and he experienced atrial fibrillation and premature ventricular contractions, life-threatening conditions that impact the heart’s regular rhythm.
The medications doctors prescribed to stabilize his heart proved ineffective or quit working, and he suffered heart attacks at age 32 and 33.
A cardiologist told Garrison following the third heart attack in 2002 – when he received an artificial heart at UPMC-Presbyterian hospital, Pittsburgh – that he would not survive without a heart transplant, and he was put on the transplant list.
He recounted a life-threatening incident during his rehabilitation at The Greenery, when the battery of his artificial heart machine quit. A quick-thinking nurse, Jane Littman, pulled off the rubber ends of turkey basters, attached them to the ends of the pump, and pumped manually – and kept him alive until a medical technician driving from Pittsburgh arrived at the facility to repair the heart pump.
On Dec. 16, 2002, Garrison underwent a heart transplant.
He received the heart of a 21-year-old man who died in a car accident, and each Christmas, Garrison writes a letter to his donor’s family that is delivered by CORE (the family has chosen to maintain their privacy, and Garrison has respected their decision).
Garrison – who said he “felt horrible and tired for 22 years” – said his faith grew stronger during his health ordeal. He, his wife, Cindy, and their three sons received support – prayers, cards and letters, visits, monetary donations and meals – from his friends and church community.
He continued his outreach, but in 2016, after 14 years of taking anti-rejection and other strong medications for his heart, Garrison’s kidneys began to fail.
“I had the dilemma of being on dialysis or asking one of my children to be a donor,” said Garrison.
All three of his sons offered to donate a kidney, and tests showed his oldest son, Mike, was a perfect match.
Garrison turned to his favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:6, which says, in part, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.”
Last April, Mike, who was living in the state of California, flew in, and the kidney transplant surgeries were successful.
Garrison also credits his wife, Cindy, calling her a hero for caring for their three children, nursing him, working and taking care of the house when he was sick.
He feels blessed to be alive.
“I’ve gotten to see my seven grandchildren. I’ve gotten to see my kids married. I’ve had a lot of good things happen in my life, my wife being the most precious one,” said Garrison. “I’m still here.”
He plans to continue to help others as long as he can.
“That’s why we are here. To do good,” said Garrison. “I’m doing what I”m supposed to do.”
As part of the ExtraO-Rdinary People recognition, Garrison will receive $500, underwritten by the Observer-Reporter and Range Resources, to donate to the nonprofit organization of his choice. He has selected Canonsburg United Presbyterian Church.