5 Ways a Heart Transplant Saved My Life
Submitted by Jilliane Code
My natural life ended 18 months ago. When your medical team informs you “It’s time to evaluate you for transplant” your mind hears “it’s official, you are dying”.
Immediately you are filled with fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, sadness.
After the initial shock, there is an overwhelming understanding that there is no more your medical team can do for you. All you can do now is wait.
Wait to live.
Wait for someone to die.
Wait for the greatest gift any human being can give to another.
When asked “What are the Top 5 things my transplant has enabled me to do?” My first thought is, what hasn’t it enabled me to do? Physically I am normal. I can walk. I can run. I can dance, I can breathe, and most important I can live. I can feel our heart beat inside my chest, and in my ears. Every day. Without question, I am alive!
For me, having a heart transplant has saved my life in ways that reach far beyond the physical.
It has changed me. It has transformed me, and here's how:
1. I live in gratitude
By all accounts I should not be alive. I should not be sitting here, writing about this incredible gift I have been given. Reflecting upon the life I had, for the suffering I endured, and for the life I now live. I am thankful for every extra moment this heart has enabled.
I now have the chance to live, to share my life with my husband, my family, my friends. I do so with an appreciation of time – time I now have to spend with those I care about. Time that I was given by the selfless humanity of a family in pain, by a choice they made to save my life. I hope that what I am doing now, living to honour their loved one, provides them comfort and solace.
Gratitude is such a small word to portray the depth and complexity of what it’s like feeling someone else’s heart beat inside your own chest. I live in gratitude to the community of doctors, surgeons, nurses, and medical professionals that worked so hard to keep me alive through a decade of heart failure, LVAD, and transplant. I live in gratitude for my husband, who’s personal sacrifice, and choice to stand beside a dying wife, goes beyond description.
I am quite simply, overwhelmed - with gratitude.
2. I live strong
I lived with heart failure for almost a decade prior to my transplant and 7 months of that with a LVAD. One of the first things I had to learn how to do following my transplant was how to use my body again. Unbeknownst to me, I spent the 8 days that immediately followed my surgery in a coma. Waking up through the delirium, I discovered I had lost the ability to lift my arms, to sit up, to stand, to walk.
As the days went by I was able to sit up, feed myself, and for a few seconds a day I was able to stand. The real test, however, was learning to walk again. I am not the most coordinated of people, but this brought the challenge to a whole new level. Even though I didn’t think it was possible, with the support of my 5A nurses and physiotherapists, I was able to use my legs again. Soon, I was doing laps around the ward.
On the first anniversary of my transplant, I competed in the 8km road race in the Victoria Marathon. I didn’t run it all, but I didn’t stop either, I didn’t have to – I was strong. I had the strength of my new heart to carry me. I had the strength of my friend, my nurse, and my husband beside me. Through my transplant experience, I learned what it means to have strength. To push past the shock, anxiety, depression, and physical limitations of learning to walk again.
To live again.
To be strong.
3. I live mindfully
Before my transplant, I could not walk without gasping for air. I could not lay down without feeling like I was drowning. I could not go up a flight of stairs without stopping. Not being able to breathe will teach you that every breath you can take, counts. To breathe is to live.
I was not living.
I was drowning.
With my transplant, now I can live as I choose and there is no mistaking that I choose to do so mindfully. I am able to witness the simplest joys. When I walk along the ocean at the dog park on Dallas Road in Victoria I am filled with happiness at the sight of a dog running full speed with its tongue hanging out chasing after nothing in particular (it is a dog after all – yes I am a cat person). Here, I get to feel the breeze off of the water, breathe in deeply (deeply!), and smell the fresh, salty air.
Prior to my transplant I could not feel my heart. It was too weak. Now, when I wake up, when I exercise, or even when I take the stairs too fast, I hear my heart – our heart – thundering in my head, beating strongly in my ears. This is when I stop, place my hand on my chest, say thank you and breathe in deeply.
I am alive.
I can breathe.
I feel my heart beating.
4. I live passionately
My transplant transformed my being. I was weak. I was tired. I was beaten. With the possibility of a transplant, I once again had hope. Of course, you have the expectation that it will make you feel better physically, and that one day soon you will no longer have the joy of regular visits with your medical team. Luckily for me, all of these things are true. What is infinitely more incredible now is that I no longer live a passive life.
I feel everything.
There is no in-between.
My empathy is in overdrive.
Nowhere more so when I am back in the hospital speaking with other patients, telling my story to first year nursing students, having conversations with resident doctors, speaking at a conference of medical professionals, on provincial health care committees. I have discovered that I am a survivor, I have a voice, and I am using it wherever and whenever I can.
5. I live with purpose
My work before my transplant seemed important. I suppose, with a certain perspective and with a kind of argument it was. I am a university professor and researcher in education. What could be better than teaching future teachers? Trying to help shape a future? I find myself now, however, completely changed. It is not enough for me anymore.
I am driven by a completely different engine - figuratively and literally. Now, I am an educator and a researcher of a new kind. I have resolved that with my second chance, that I have a new purpose. To give back to the community that has kept me alive; a community that has supported me when I didn’t think I could continue, and to honor my donor. My purpose is to:
Do work that matters.
Honour a life that is not totally my own.
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