Jamaican-born Robert Hamaty is a successful businessman, dedicated husband, loving father, and former airline captain. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday, a milestone made possible because of a lifesaving heart transplant in 1996 at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Hamaty, the founder of the famous Tortuga Rum Company, Ltd., realizes that every day since his transplant is a gift – and that he was fortunate to receive the medical care he needed in the United States.
Some countries in the Caribbean do not have existing organ procurement programs, and organ donation is not an option like it is in the U.S. Hamaty vowed to change that.
“The people residing in the islands are at a disadvantage, “Hamaty said. “I wanted to create a bigger pool so that organs can be used to help individuals that are waiting on organs here in the Cayman Islands and in the United States. Organ donation extends someone’s life and my life was extended 22 years.”
Last month, the government in the Cayman Islands approved legislation to establish a Human Tissue Transplant Council, which will be responsible for the creation of a human tissue donation registry so that islanders can register to become organ donors. Hamaty, who championed the effort, was asked to serve as one of the council’s five members.
Hamaty’s journey towards transplantation combined with his advocacy makes him the perfect candidate.
In 1965, he began flight training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach – a passion fueled by his father, an attorney by trade and private pilot who owned a small plane.
By the age of 24, he became an airline captain for Air Jamaica, and then for Cayman Airways.
Just before turning 40, Hamaty came down with the flu, which grounded him in a hospital in the Cayman Islands.
“I had never gone to any hospital or taken any tablets,” he said. “I played soccer and ran track. I was healthy with no indication of any medical conditions.”
The flu took a toll on Hamaty. He was uncharacteristically weak, and experienced shortness of breath. He asked to be transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital to be seen by Stephen Mallon, MD, a cardiologist who he had met at a fishing tournament in Jamaica.
Dr. Mallon determined that the flu had caused Hamaty to develop an enlarged heart leading to viral cardiomyopathy. It is a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body, and can result in heart failure. He received the grim news that his life expectancy with this condition was just five years. It was a stunning diagnosis for the athlete.
Hamaty’s only hope at living a long life was a heart transplant.
His days of flying for pleasure and a career were over. Instead, he frequently traveled between the islands and Miami for appointments with Dr. Mallon at Jackson Memorial.
While coping with his medical issues, Hamaty was also focused on the launch of a new business venture.
In 1984, Hamaty and his wife, Carlene, founded the Tortuga Rum Company, Ltd., which introduced the first rums of the Cayman Islands. Three years later, they opened the first Tortuga duty-free liquor store, and later that year introduced the now world-famous Tortuga Caribbean rum cake.
But as the company grew to become a global success, Hamaty’s health continued to deteriorate. Breathing became so difficult for him that he needed supplemental oxygen and could only sleep while seated in a chair.
His only chance at survival, doctors advised, was a heart transplant. On February 26, 1996, after six weeks in intensive care at Jackson Memorial, Hamaty’s prayers were answered: a donor heart was available.
“A peaceful feeling came over me like the wait was over,” Hamaty recalls. “I was prepared and went into the operating room with no fear at all. I felt especially fortunate to have my family by my side.”
The surgery was a success.
After a six-month recovery in Miami, Hamaty was finally able to return home.
As fate would have it, he learned that the donor heart he received belonged to a 27-year-old pilot who died after a skydiving incident at the same Daytona Beach airport where Hamaty first learned to fly.
“I have the heart of a pilot,” Hamaty said. “My transplant journey became even more meaningful to me.”
Determined to make the most out of his second chance at life, Hamaty celebrates every birthday as a milestone. He recently enjoyed his 70th birthday celebration in the Cayman Islands with family, friends, and even some of the medical team who saved his life.
He continues running the family business with his wife and daughter, while also advocating for organ donation throughout the Caribbean so that others can have a second chance.
“I have five grandchildren who I would’ve never met if it wasn’t for my heart transplant,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be alive.”