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Transplant patient Merle Zuel organizes eighth benefit at Knuckleheads for others like him

04/29/2014 4:00 PM

04/30/2014 7:55 PM

In February, Merle Zuel celebrated the seventh anniversary of his heart transplant. This weekend, at Knuckleheads, he is celebrating the eighth annual MerleJam, which raises money for heart-transplant patients and their families. Later this month, Zuel expects to complete his nursing degree. The three things are related. Zuel, 52, has worked part time at Knuckleheads since 2006. On Feb. 23, 2007, he underwent heart transplant surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital. He has since become an ambassador for organ transplants and the Midwest Transplant Network. Though he has worked tirelessly as a transplant advocate, about three years ago Zuel decided it was time to give back to the profession that saved his life. And also introduced him to his wife, Kim, who was his respiratory therapist while he was hospitalized. “I realized I had more to give,” Zuel said. “I wanted to prove myself professionally and give back by taking care of others.” So he enrolled in school, taking a year to get prerequisites out of the way, then enrolled in the two-year nursing program at Kansas City Kansas Community College. The program has given Zuel the chance to stand on the other side of hospital care. “I didn’t get to see any open-heart surgery,” he said, “but I did get to see them do a pacemaker lead replacement, which was kind of surreal because I’ve already had all that done. It’s been interesting going from being the patient to being the caregiver. A lot of the stuff we talk about I have first-hand knowledge of from being a patient so much.” His final clinical will be May 12; the nursing pinning ceremony is May 20. In the summer he will take his state boards, required to be a licensed nurse. He plans to go back to school and complete his bachelor of science in nursing. Zuel said he’d like to work in some capacity for the transplant network or at St. Luke’s. “That’s where I had so much of my care,” he said. “I know a lot of the doctors and nurses and other staff. I have a real strong connection to that place. But I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket.” That connection includes the MerleJam Transplant Fund. Benefits from MerleJam go to that fund, then — via the Transplant Recipients International Organization — to the St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation. The money helps heart transplant patients meet expenses before and after surgery. MerleJam has become a gathering of more than just musicians and music fans. It has also become an annual meeting place for transplant recipients and donor families. “One of the best ways to honor donors and their families is to celebrate the success of the transplants and show people that it works,” he said. “I’m here and I’m healthy. We don’t beat people over the head with a message, but we talk about donor registration and tell people how it affects recipients. It’s a good place for people to mingle and meet recipients or donor families in a fun, nonmedical environment.” This year’s event will feature two performances by Samantha Fish: on Friday she’ll do a set of country songs. Saturday night she’ll do her regular blues material. Other performers include Jesse Dayton, Trampled Under Foot and Anthony Gomes. Zuel said MerleJam has raised more than $80,000 over seven years.

This weekend

MerleJam, the two-day benefit for the MerleJam Transplant Fund of the St. Luke’s Hospital Foundation, is Friday and Saturday at Knuckleheads. The schedules:

Friday: Jesse Dayton, Samantha Fish (country show), Outlaw Jim & the Whiskey Benders and Tater & the Gravy Train. Show time is 8 p.m. Admission is $15.

Saturday: Trampled Under Foot, Samantha Fish, Anthony Gomes and Baby Jason. Show time is 7 p.m. Admission is $20.

A tribute to Pete Seeger Saturday would have been Pete Seeger’s 95th birthday. On Friday, more than two dozen local musicians will celebrate his birthday at the Pete Seeger Memorial Birthday Concert at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Performers will include Betse Ellis (the event’s host), Danny Cox, Kasey Dawn Rausch, Mikal Shapiro, Anthony Ladesich, Howard Iceberg & Emily Tummons, Rosy’s Bar & Grill, Bill Clause, Bob and Diana Suckiel, Old Sound, David Hakan, Barry Lee with Ron Roberts and Jim Sander, the Accidentals, Shy Boys, and Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. Speakers will include Kathy Peters, a friend of Seeger’s who performed with him when he visited Kansas City. Among the songs to be performed: “If I Had a Hammer,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Tzena Tzena Tzena,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “Amazing Grace,” “East Virginia Blues” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Advance tickets are $18 and available at BrownPaperTickets.com; tickets at the door are $23. The show is a benefit for community radio station KKFI (90.1 FM).

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