Anniversaries are efficient at evoking memories. I recently celebrated an important one, a first. It all started just over a year ago with a phone call at 1:10 in the morning on April 27th. I remember my heart stuttering as I changed out of my night wear and “raced” to add items to an already packed suitcase. Night mask. I-Pad. Magic bags. The murder mystery from my bedside table. Medications? No. I’d never need those medications again.
The ambulance ride was comfortable; the crew, as always, made me laugh and this time shared in my sense of anticipation. At the Calgary airport, my middle daughter and I hugged each other in the chilly darkness then boarded a Medevac plane to Edmonton. One more ambulance ride from the Edmonton airport to the Don Mazankowski Heart Centre and there, during an operation lasting eight hours, I received my new heart.
Some of the memories from that day are blurred, thanks to the trauma of surgery and powerful medications. Others, especially the pre-surgery ones, are more salient. In the cold sterility of a passageway, lying alone on a stretcher and waiting to enter the operating room, I remember thinking of the people who had just lost their loved one. I thought about their courage and generosity in the midst of overwhelming sadness. I grieved with them.
Transplant recipients and donor families are encouraged to write one another, but the letters are vetted and redacted to ensure that identities remain a secret. One of my fellow heart transplant recipients received a beautiful, detailed letter from her donor family just before Christmas, and she shared it with me. Although some areas were obliterated with a black marker, she was still able to get a good sense of the personality and life of the young woman whose heart she received. I have written to my donor’s family, expressing my gratitude and outlining the incredible changes in my life that the new heart has brought about. To this date, I haven’t heard back from them. I’ve speculated about this at times. Is their continued grief making it too difficult for them to write to me? Are they second-guessing the decision to donate their loved one’s organs? Did they not feel kindly toward the family member who donated their heart?
For the longest time I yearned for that letter from my donor’s family and then, over time, I convinced myself that I didn’t really want to receive it. Perhaps it had something to do with articles that I read about transplant patients who suffer depression and anxiety, and struggle with their identity. The experience of receiving an organ from a fellow human being who died is overwhelming, almost surreal. And it’s easy to accept that a new heart alone can cause emotional distress: it’s the only organ that defies the simple definition of pump or machine. Some patients actually develop alarming symptoms: a strong, unhealthy emotional bond with the donor or a sense of invasion by an alien entity. I’ve been fortunate not to experience any of these more extreme symptoms, but I did briefly contemplate the issue of identity when someone dubbed my new heart “Bob.” I smiled initially, immediately thought of Bob Newheart. The moniker Bob had a perky cachet to it. It caught on in my family and friendship circles (some people still use it to this day), but I never became completely comfortable with it. I worried that it implied a lack of respect, even though the person who chose it and those who used it would never be guilty of that. Perhaps more than the concern about “dishonouring” the heart was an underlying need for union, not separation.
The closest I’ve come to learning anything about my heart was an EKG technician’s comment that I had a young heart. I had no idea how old it was, I told him. Heart transplant recipients can receive an organ up to fifty-five years of age. No, he insisted, it was a young heart; he could tell by the peaks in the graph. Even this glimpse into my heart’s history hasn’t changed how I visualize or feel about my heart. The designation “young” covers a large terrain.
I know nothing about my donor and I know nothing about my donor’s family. Perhaps that is always the way it will be. I respect that.
I am at one with my heart.