Emmy Award-winning reporter Charles Gomez’s latest story comes with a twist: It’s about the extraordinary heart transplant that saved his life.
The 70-year-old Manhattan man, sitting in the living room of his apartment, beamed with joy as he recounted his brush with mortality and eventual recovery from beating heart transplant surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital this past May.
The rare nine-hour procedure was only introduced in the U.S. two years ago and is still uncommon for HIV-positive patients like himself. He’s quick to thank both his doctors and his donor for their roles in his rescue.
“I’ve got a new life,” said Gomez, sitting inside his apartment while detailing his “spiritual connection” with the 20-something man whose heart now beats in his chest.
“He was in a catastrophic car accident,” Gomez said of his donor.
“That’s how the heart became available and I think of him every day. I have a nickname for him, which is ‘Donnie’ for donor. Every once in a while I talk to him. I say, ‘Thank you for the heart and you’re really helping me. Look, I’m able to write this today or walk today.’ I just have conversations with the donor. I know it sounds strange because he’s passed on but it gives me strength.”
His surgeon, Dr. Anelechi Anyanwu, Surgical Director of Heart Transplantation at Mount Sinai Health System, explained how the surgery worked.
“Mr Gomez’s donor was someone who died of cardiac death and was not brain dead,” she said. “In such cases, the heart is taken out of the donor’s body. It’s revived and put on organ care system where blood is pumped, and it beats. Then we sewed into his body while the heart is beating, which is quite new and is a more complicated way to do the surgery. But it worked out well for him.”
The dapper Gomez, wearing a striped shirt, black pants, and polished black loafers, recalled his birth in Miami after his parents migrated from Cuba in the 1940s. He developed an interest in speech and debate in high school and became determined to work as a journalist, landing at the Miami Herald as an intern for two years in the 1970s.
After attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the 25-year-old was hired by CBS News as its first Cuban-American journalist and became the Latin American correspondent.
His career took off, with the reporter interviewing world leaders including Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, Baby Doc Duvalier and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.
“But there was always a parallel story,” he said. “I was out covering wars and revolutions while I was getting shot at and grenades were being tossed. I was very conscious that if people thought I was gay that they might not think I was up to the task. I know that sounds strange now but back then the frame of mind of the society was such that I could even be fired if I declared that I was homosexual.”
Gomez joined WWOR-TV in New York when the AIDS crisis was at its peak in 1984.
“For one of my first stories, they sent me out to cover to talk to someone who had come down with AIDS,” he recounted. “I had absolutely no problem with it. But my camera crew (did) at first. The level of people’s ignorance was such that they thought the virus might even be airborne.”
Gomez was diagnosed with HIV in 1992, went on to develop full-blown AIDS and struggled with it until 2005 when his virus finally became undetectable thanks to powerful new medications.
“I wanted so much for people not to think that I had AIDS that I covered up with some way or the other,” he said. “I injected silicone treatments into my face. I started working out at the gym and began to transform my body. I also started injecting steroids, which was a big mistake. And I did that all the way until 2012.”
Gomez underwent quadruple bypass surgery that same year after suffering a massive heart attack. Nine years later, he met Dr. Johanna Contreras, an Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The doctor was struck by Gomez’s journey, where he was always there for people in crisis — both as a reporter and as someone instrumental in the gay and HIV communities.
“I want people to take the stigma away that because someone is gay or has HIV then they are bad,” said Contreras, who was born and educated in Colombia. “I want to represent our Hispanic community because they don’t look at transplant as a possibility – mainly because of lack of information, language barrier and religious reasons. Unfortunately, only 6% of the cardiologists in this country are Hispanics and only 2% of them are women.”
After waiting for 18 months, Gomez received an unexpected May 2023 call from Dr. Anyanwu. Less than 12 hours later, Gomez was in the hospital for a transplant made risky because of his age and health history.
“In terms of what makes the case special, obviously, he’s an older gentleman who has HIV and until recently patients with HIV were not being offered transplants at all,” said Anyanwu, who performed the beating heart operation. “He had previous surgery, which made it even more complicated. He wasn’t very healthy. He was malnourished and very weak. The color of his skin was often bluish color because he was not getting enough oxygen to his organs.”
Gomez credits his long-time partner and husband, Matthew Carnino, for becoming a solid pillar of support through the difficult times. And Carnino said he was just following lessons from childhood, that if you loved someone you did whatever necessary to keep them alive.
“Chuck and I have always been, if nothing else, just really intimate friends,” said Carnino. “Until he stabilized, I was afraid he was going to die. I realized I was so bereft if the universe took him and it really affected me. So we did everything right. We made sure he listened to his doctors. After the transplant, I was the primary court jester. I would go to the hospital; I’d make sure Chuck was motivated. I made sure the staff were motivated.”
“When we had the conversation about transplantation I told Chuck that if he decides to do this, I will get him through this,” he added. “Rest is history.”
During his recovery, Gomez channeled his energies towards creativity. He ended up writing the memoir “Cuban Son Rising” to talk about the shame and stigma he faced for having AIDS, his news career and his fears of coming out at work. The book won three awards, including Best Autobiography in the International Latino Book Awards and a Benjamin Franklin Book Award.
He’s currently writing a novel called “Eye of the Storm” about child sexual abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, elder abuse, and incarceration with the backdrop of Santería.
Once done, he plans to write a first-person book about his heart transplant.
“I am calling it ‘Change of Heart: My Transplant Odyssey,’” he shared, giggling like a child with excitement.