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Couple’s long journey marks 50-year marriage, 25-year heart transplant survival

Jay and Jo Lal pose for a photo on June 28 at their home in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Jay and Jo Lal pose for a photo on June 28 at their home in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a long way between Fiji and Eastern Washington, and one Spokane couple measures that beyond just physical distance.

Jay and Jo Lal celebrate multiple milestones this year: 50 years of marriage, 25 years since his heart transplant at Sacred Heart Medical Center and more than 32 years in Spokane, a town they had not heard of before they moved here.

With ancestors from India, Jay Lal, 75, was born in Fiji and almost didn’t finish high school. He turned education into a career, holding a doctorate degree as a professor at Gonzaga University, and now as adjunct at Whitworth University.

Before college, both had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jo Lal, 71, a retired Spokane Public Schools teacher, grew up in Australia after her family immigrated from England when she was 6. The couple met in Hawaii at the church’s campus, now Brigham Young University-Hawaii. They married June 24, 1972.

“It’s been a long journey, a wonderful journey from there to here,” Jay Lal said. “My great-grandparents were indentured laborers from India and came to Fiji.”

The laborers worked in Fiji’s sugar cane fields. “My parents were born in Fiji. Of course, they didn’t go back to India, so we have a very large Indian population in Fiji. I was brought up as a Polynesia Indian.”

He grew up Hindu, and by age 16, left high school to become an apprentice electrician in telecommunication. Those plans changed when people in his new faith connected him to its high school in Tonga, where he finished and received a first-year scholarship in Hawaii. He was the only one among siblings to finish school.

“I’ve always wondered, was this my destiny, to eventually be here in Spokane?” he said.

His wife chimes in with an affirmative. Moving to Spokane brought fulfilling careers along with crucial medical care over the years for him, despite an initial intention to return to Australia. After his doctorate work, GU hired him for his distance learning expertise. In 1989, they moved into the Spokane home where they remain.

It could have gone differently after Hawaii. The church owns the Polynesian Cultural Center adjacent to the Hawaii campus, so he worked there doing technical work backstage to pay for college. She worked at the center and elsewhere on campus. They graduated debt-free.

The couple then moved to Australia and started a family, eventually having four children. He worked for the Queensland Department of Education, a job that required travel through vast countryside to do in-service training in technology for classrooms.

They stayed in Australia for 10 years. During that time, he completed a master’s at San Jose State and they lived then in the Bay Area, but returned to Queensland. A bigger change came in 1986.

“I was accepted to a doctoral program at the University of Oregon,” he said. They moved on Christmas, trading summer for winter and experiencing the holiday more than once across time zones.

Eventually, Jo Lal managed a property’s 56 duplexes so they could live rent-free, and Jay got a faculty position by the second quarter. Their church provided their food. Completing his doctorate by 1989, the plan was Australia.

“Then Gonzaga found me,” he said. His wife had to be talked into moving to Spokane. “We said Spok-where?” she said. “The university said, ‘We’ll take care of the visa,’ which they did, and they offered us health insurance right away. We thought, two years is not bad.”

But a tenure-track slot opened, and he joined as a professor in education. He traveled to conduct master’s programs for Gonzaga in locations such as Canada.

Another unexpected turn happened when Jay Lal had a major heart attack in summer 1992. His wife had just finished her master’s in education at GU. “Luckily, I was employed by the school district because Jay couldn’t work for a while,” she said.

He was on the heart transplant list for 18 months before surgery in 1997, because of ischemic cardiomyopathy.

The couple credit humor and faith in handling the twists and turns, including his kidney failure in 2006. Jo Lal planned to donate a kidney to him, but when that fell through, she donated her organ to a stranger in Seattle. That bumped up his priority to receive a different kidney.

“A lot of heart transplant patients need to receive kidney transplants because the anti-rejection drugs are very hard on the organs, and Jay’s kidneys were damaged,” she said. “The staff in Spokane Public Schools donated leave to me so I could recover from my kidney donation. That was so wonderful for people to donate time for me, so I could.”

Before retirement around 2015, she taught in two elementary schools for 24 years, Sheridan and Garfield, and later did intensive reading intervention with students.

Today, Jay Lal teaches summers in Whitworth’s graduate school of education. His other health issues have included prostate cancer now in remission, diabetes and diverticulitis. He was in the hospital for COVID in October.

He’s since lost weight but feels well. They celebrated their wedding anniversary with some of their family in June. They now have 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“People are intrigued by our journey,” Jay Lal said. “We are a biracial family. That in itself raises a lot of questions. In 50 years, and it is sometimes humorous and sometimes not, if we’re about two steps apart, people will ask, ‘Are you together?’

“I don’t live and think of myself as disabled. I do take precautions because of immune suppression, but I enjoy people. I think one of the things about being in a teaching profession that I enjoy is the building of relationships.”

Jo Lal attributes her husband’s ability to see the positive and enjoy being around people. “And people enjoy him; he’s very charismatic,” she said.

“We have a very profound faith. It colors our outlook. It allows us to feel at peace in times of strife and difficulty. We find great joy in the moment and in the journey. You don’t have to reach a goal to find joy. You find it in everyday experiences.”

Through it all, they count Spokane among their blessings, she said. “Spokane is the place Jay needed to be because of the medical care that we didn’t even know about. It’s divine intervention, really, that we’d even be here.

“If we’d been anywhere else, we wouldn’t have the amazing support we get from the transplant program. We’re so grateful to be here, which is why we’ve stayed.”

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