On Valentine's Day (and #NationalDonorDay), this heart transplant recipient has a few thoughts about what's really in a heart...
The #heart is a special organ. Not only does it signify life, but our culture also believes it is the center of our soul. It guides our emotions, our feelings, and perhaps most importantly, it signifies love and passion. We are reminded of this each #ValentinesDay. And yet the symbol that we all think of as depicting a heart actually has little resemblance to an actual heart—the organ itself. The only thing that is somewhat accurate is the color red.
But the question I raise is this: What happens if you remove the original heart and have it replaced with another model—a transplanted heart? This is what happened to me, so I have a little insight. As I neared my 50th birthday, my heart was failing.
Without a heart #transplant, I would die.
My medical team at Cedars Sinai hospital in L.A. said I needed a new heart, kidney and, best case, a new pancreas, which would cure my Type 1 Diabetes, the source of my problems. The only catch? A triple transplant had never been performed before. I told them I would be the first one, and so it was. In November 2005, I got the call—that a match had been located. In a 21-hour surgery, I received a new heart and kidney transplant from a young man--his family grieving--a generous donor. The pancreas transplant followed in 2006 from yet another kind person who, in her passing, gave me life.
The new heart had to get to know its new surroundings, and I needed to get to know this new heart. It was like we were dating one another. I introduced it to caffeine and it almost jumped out of my chest. I worked it out at the gym and it pumped like that of a thoroughbred.
Now, 10 years later, how do I feel? How has the heart transplant changed my life? Well, for one thing, I’m a whole lot healthier and stronger. I also have a unique perspective on life. Coming as close to death as I did will do that to you. I think about my donor; I think of his family. I wonder how tragic it must have been to lose a son at such a young age. I remember the first time we met, as they were so shocked not to see their son’s heart in another 17-year-old boy. And yet, now when we meet, it is all smiles. His mother puts her ear on my chest to hear her son’s heart beating in its new home—my chest, my heartbeat now.
This past New Year’s Day, I was honored to ride on the #DonateLife float in the Rose Bowl Parade. I was holding a picture of my donor, who also had a floragraph on the float.
I did something special that day--I sent my heartbeat via an Apple Watch to my donor’s mother, who was watching from the grandstands. A little heart icon popped up on her Apple Watch; it pulsed and throbbed on her wrist. My family tells me that she smiled, then she cried. We shared a heartbeat that day, not the way either of us ever thought we would, but a heartbeat we both loved, nonetheless.
What’s really in a heart? Not lace, not candy, not flowers or chocolates--not just vessels and muscle, either. It’s a gift, a beat, a moment of grace, and it can be shared, even when we’re gone.