National Donate Life Month
The first time I became aware of organ donation I had just woken from what I thought, mistakenly, was sleep. A doctor rolled a low stool alongside the procedure table where I lay, and set me straight. “Your heart stopped during the exam,” he frowned. “We lost you for a little while.” Then he told me that without a heart transplant, I would die. A nurse let out a squawk-sob and dropped her face into her hands.
The year was 1988. I was 25 years old.
I had never heard of heart transplant or even the concept of organ donation, for that matter. I had never for a minute thought about the possibility of one person’s vital organ taking up residence and function in the body of another. When a friend asked me a few days after the fated exam, “Will you get a baboon’s heart?” I thought her ridiculously naïve, but that wasn’t fair of me: I’d only just become aware myself that hearts for transplant come from brain-dead donors. And I’d learned this only because I had essentially died during a cardiac procedure.
I’ve been turning this memory over in my mind lately because April is National Donate Life Month. For 31 years, I have lived with a transplanted donor heart beneath my breastbone—which makes for the ultimate in awareness, an ever-present gratitude that literarily pulses through me. But as constant as my orientation to organ donation has been and will always be, the passage of decades has taught me this: Awareness shifts over time. Growing up—and growing older, I suppose—changes what we pay attention to. We’ve all recognized, at one point or another as we age, a widening and narrowing of focus on the things life shows us. For me, the concept cuts especially deep: Time has changed how I view the source of my heartbeat.
I should add here that I have received not just one, but two donor hearts: one, when I was 25, and a second at 50. Both came from 13-year-old girls.
This incredible circumstance—having two heart transplants 25 years apart, both from 13-year-old donors—begs comparison: Who was I at the time of my first transplant as opposed to the second? How has my awareness changed vis-à-vis receiving a precious donated organ?
The girl I was in 1988 heard that a matching donor heart had been found, and she wept with joy. When I learned that the donor was 13 years old, I didn’t think much of it—there were only 12 years between us. There was gratitude, oh yes, and awareness that a family had been grieving. Over the next few months, I wrote the donor family weekly letters that, back in 1988, I was not permitted to send to them (the regulations have since changed). I didn’t know at the time how lucky I was that my doctor told me the donor’s age and sex; most often, such details were not shared with organ recipients. This bonus awareness I’d been given did not prompt me to think long and hard about what it meant to receive the heart of a teenager.
And then the years between 25 and 50 grew me from a girl to a woman.
In the hours leading up to my second transplant surgery, the doctor told me that my donor was a 13-year-old girl—again. I was fortunate to receive this information—again. But, this time, awareness was illuminated by three decades of perspective.
Heading into the operating room for the second heart transplant of my life, I watched the woman I’d grown into emerge:
I close my eyes for a moment and imagine the mother of the teenager whose heartbeat may soon become mine. A deluge of emotion floods my mind with longing: Oh, how I wish I could reach out, right this second—person to person, mother to mother—and assure her that if I am lucky enough to survive this surgery, I will take the very best care of her child. For I have already watched over and nurtured one thirteen-year-old donor-heart girl, devoted every last bit of myself to protecting her from harm, doing all I can do to keep her beating strong and free from heart transplant ills. And now I will do the same for this second lifesaving daughter-angel.
“Don’t you worry—I’ve got this,” I whisper under my breath. “You can count on me.”
Grateful awareness can be powerful from the start. But perspective and wisdom—these gems can only be polished by time.
Watch Amy’s story:
April is National Donate Life Month.
Every 10 minutes another person is added to the national transplant list
Donating your organs can save up to 8 lives
Even the largest football stadium in the U.S. cannot hold the number of patients on the national transplant waiting list
Original cover illustration by Gracen Hansen. View more of her work on Instagram @dailygracen