Longtime DFW Radio Host Hal Jay Shares the Story of His Life-Saving Heart Transplant

After living with heart disease and congestive heart failure for years, an organ donor saved the life of WBAP radio host Hal Jay

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Longtime North Texas radio host Hal Jay is back home recovering after spending weeks in the hospital and receiving a heart transplant that saved his life.

“I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. It was ama ... it was amazing,” he said as he fought back tears. “Amazing.”

Hal, husband to Ann Harbuck for almost 50 years is a father and a grandfather. He's also a Texas Radio Hall of Fame member who has spent 42 years on the air with WBAP 820 AM.

And for several years, Hal has lived with heart disease. Congestive heart failure weakened his heart and it couldn't pump blood to the rest of his body. Then came ventricular tachycardia, or V-tach.

“It’s a very life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm and it causes you to pass out. If it doesn't break, you die from it,” said Dr. Shelley Hall, Hal’s cardiologist and the chief of transplant cardiology at Baylor University Medical Center.

An implanted defibrillator that shocked Hal's heart back to a normal rhythm save his life on a few occasions, but too many shocks weakened his heart.

“So one problem makes the other problem worse which makes the first problem worse, and it becomes this horrible spiral. We did everything possible,” Hall said.

Hall knew her patient would need a new heart.

Reality set in when on Jan. 10, at the age of 69, Hal collapsed at home. That incident put him on the list for a heart transplant but waiting for one brought more worry and days of waiting.

Everybody knew this was coming except me. I thought, 'I don't need a heart transplant.'

Hal Jay

“It was a roller coaster. One day, he couldn't get a heart 'cuz he had too much fluid. Then they got the fluid off and he was gonna go home. Then went into V-tach again,” said Ann.

That day, Jan. 24, was the day Hal believed he was dying and could feel it happening.

“I had Ann’s hand. We were face-to-face. I said, ‘I love you dearly. I love you more than anything in the world but I’m fixin' to die,” he said as he relived that day.

“He looked at me in panic. Panic. Panicked,” his wife said.

Panic, yet no fear. At that moment Hal believed he'd win either way.

“I win. 'Cuz if I lived, I’m still with Ann and the family. If I die, I’m with Josh,” Jay said.

NBC 5 News
Hal Jay talks with NBC 5's Deborah Ferguson about his heart transplant, February 2023.

Josh Harbuck was the couple's oldest son. He was a husband and father of two when he died at the age of 36 in a car crash. The six-year anniversary of Josh's death came almost on the very day Ann watched Hal struggle to breathe.

“I was in the corner, praying. They had to shock him twice. It was pretty scary,” Ann said.

“We’re like, 'We tried. You’re gonna be in the ICU until it's time for the transplant,'” Hall said. ”He got worse and we had to accelerate our support and he got higher on the list.”

“I fully expected it to be six weeks or two months or whatever. Soon as I got to Level 2, I caught a break. And, it happened, I think, within 10 days,” Hal said.

As Hal stayed in the ICU he’d been instructed to keep his phone with him. He’d get a phone call when and if a donor's heart became available.

“I was in the hospital here and my phone rang,” he said as he described the call that would change his life. “This is Stacy White with Baylor Transplant and she said, all she said was ‘THIS IS THE CALL.’ I just about lost it. I called Ann.”

Ann, who’d stayed at her husband’s bedside day and night, had gone back home to pick up a few things.

“I’m standing in the Target parking lot, and he goes, ‘Ann. Ann. I got the call.’ I went, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘I got the call.’ And so, I just started crying. And I said, ’You’re kidding me? You’re kidding me?’ He goes, ‘I’m going into surgery tonight’,” Ann recalled.

The transplant, an open heart surgery in which Jay’s dying organ would be replaced with a healthy heart from a donor, was performed in the wee hours of Saturday, Feb. 4.

Four and a half hours later, Hal was back in a room. Nine days later, Hal was discharged and sent home for good.

NBC 5 was there during his first post-surgery follow-up visit at Baylor. He’s still weak from surgery and all the days in a hospital room, but the heart he now has in his chest beats strong.

“You wanna see it? I don’t mind showing it,” he said as he unzips his shirt to show the incision in his chest. The incision will heal, but will forever be a visible reminder of the operation that saved his life.

“He’s done phenomenally well,” Hall said. “It was all of that prep work before he even needed the transplant. He went into the surgery strong despite having a mechanical pump supporting him and he came out strong. The heart was working well right away."

shelley hall
NBC 5 News
Dr. Shelley Hall talks about her heart patient, Hal Jay, with NBC 5's Deborah Ferguson, in February 2023.

“We were blessed,” Ann said. “All the prayers. It seems all like a dream now, because when you look at him, basically he looks the same. He’s Hal Jay again.”

“A day or two after the surgery, it's like I was reborn. I can't wait to get back to work,” Hal said.

“Everybody goes through so much these days, but we got blessed and that's the hard part. Why?” Ann asked.

“I don't ever want to forget there's a family suffering somewhere, too, but maybe they're not because they give the gift of life to me,” Hal said.

Hal is unsure if he’ll meet the family of the donor. He’s been advised to concentrate on recovery for the first year.

“We do encourage them if they want to, to reach out to the donor family or the donor family reach out to the recipients. I think it's a very healing process for the two parties to meet,” Hall said.

As Hal and his wife wrestle with the question "Why him?" part of the answer may lie in a promise to be there for his family as long as he can.

NBC 5 News
Ann Harbuck, left, talks with NBC 5's Deborah Ferguson, right, about her husband's heart disease and eventual transplant, in February 2023.

“I remember coming out of surgery, briefly. I looked up and I said, “God, thank you so much.’ The next thing I did, I said, ‘Josh' and I was looking up. I said, ‘I’m not gonna be there yet. I got a few more years to watch the grandkids grow,’” Hal said as he wiped away tears.

“He just wants to watch our grandkids grow up and be with our family,” Ann said. “That’s really all we care about in life and talk about this.”

“I’m looking for publicity. What I’m thankful for is that I can tell people about organ donation. It's so important, but you don't know it until you face it,” Hal said.

Organ donation, regular check-ups, gratitude, family and faith will be the messages Hal Jay will take to the mic when returns to the air on WBAP.

He's taking several medications, including a drug to prevent his body from rejecting his new organ. He'll also see the medical team regularly for the next year, but as his cardiologist puts it -- after 12 months it'll be like sending a kid off to college. She'll see him every three months.

Ann Harbuck
Hal Jay, left, with his wife Ann Harbuck, right, talks about organ donation after receiving a heart transplant in February 2023.


Registering to be an organ donor in Texas is quick and easy and can be done in a number of ways.

You can register online, at donatelifetexas.org -- the nonprofit that manages the state's registry -- in any of the following ways. By mail -- forms can be downloaded here; by visiting the Texas Department of Public Safety and selecting YES when you apply for or renew your driver's license or renew your vehicle; by checking a box when you get a hunting or fishing license online through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; or, if you're an iPhone user, by using the medID tab in the iPhone Health App.

When Texans apply for a new or renewed driver’s license, they are asked: “Would you like to join the organ donor registry?” But the actual means of donating organs isn’t nearly as easy as the sign-up. The Dallas Morning News reporter Nataly Keomoungkhoun explains in her report.
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