I recently received a letter from my organ donor’s family. I have been very vague about the contents of the letter to respect them and their wishes (and please do not ask me to send it to you). What I have not been (or will not be) vague about are my feelings about reading it, processing it, and continuing my life knowing who’s heart is beating inside of me.
My organ donor was a young girl who was, also, in the prime of her life. She was in school and was involved with many extracurriculars. She seemed very loving, and was absolutely admired by all around her. She was passionate and had many big goals that she never got around to accomplishing.
But her loving, caring heart lives on inside of me.
Some have asked how I felt when I read it? Reading the letter was difficult and emotional because I really found out about the girl who died and gave me her heart. She was another human living her precious life on Earth, just like me. She was a beautiful soul.
I realized that the day I celebrated the most (and have been celebrating) was the day that I was reborn with a new heart— during the early morning hours on that cold, January day. But now, I will remember that this day marked the end of her life. She will forever be a big part of me (both literally and figuratively). So do I celebrate life? Or do I mourn death?
The obvious answer is that I should celebrate life. Her legacy will live on. I can do so much with our heart. I can go back to saving lives. She will go back to saving lives. I get it. I absolutely do. Really. I understand the positive things about this.
But I am only human. The darker thoughts will always linger.
I am so grateful that someone young with a healthy, strong heart died as an honorable organ donor— I needed that heart quickly. But I am so upset that someone young with a healthy, strong heart died. I am so happy that I get to live the rest of my life to accomplish all of my goals. I am so sad that someone else will not be able to accomplish her own goals because of a sudden tragedy. I am so excited to spend my time with my friends and family during this (awful) medical leave. I am so angry that her friends and family can’t spend time with her, unless you count the moments they stand around her gravesite— being six feet under is just not the same.
I am so lucky to be freely breathing this fresh air with no cough and without any lifesaving pressors and inotropes— remember, I can conquer the world nowadays.
I am feeling so guilty, though. These were supposed to be her breaths.
It’s interesting to think about. Truly. We were both in Intensive Care Units, miles apart, at the same time. We both probably had the same procedures done to us— was her central line on the right or left side of her neck? Was she on propofol and fentanyl? Surely she was on her own life-saving medications, I wonder which ones. Did her arterial line continuously kink and need to be replaced?
I imagine that her family was there, too, hoping that she would get better. I wonder how many balloons and gifts were neatly laid out around her bed. I wonder if her friends were there, trying to make her laugh with stupid jokes. I wonder how many times they held her hand. The words haunt me now …. “Can you squeeze my finger?” She wasn’t able to.
On the same day, two incredible things happened:
In an ICU, I was told that I was going to be able to live my life again. A glorious moment. My physicians and nurses came in to hug me.
My family and friends were in and outside of my room. Everybody was hugging and crying.
But a physician in an ICU, miles away, told a family that there was little hope left. She listened to the last of her lung sounds, her heart sounds. She checked her pupils, both dilated. A quick "Time of Death" was recorded in the chart.
Her family and friends were in and outside of her room. Everybody was hugging and crying.
So similar, yet so different...
I guess Kurt Vonnegut put it so nicely once:
”And so it goes.”
I will write the rest of this post (selfishly) for my own peace of mind. Perhaps her family will read it someday:
Kyank is the literal Armenian word for “life,” but it is used to address the very special people in your own life (the ones you love more than anything). It’s only fitting that I call you that.
I am you, and you are me.
I had a lot in common with you. It was more than just our blood type and body habitus. In fact, it was kind of chilling to read about your interests. We probably would have been good friends. But instead, our paths crossed in the strangest of ways. On the last day of your life, on the first day of my life. On the worst day of your life, on the best day of my life.
And I will be honest— I don’t know if I should be upset or happy or angry or guilty or grateful about that. I just don’t know.
What I do know is what I've been saying since I woke up with your heart inside of me: I will do everything that I can to honor you and your family.
Thank you for the gift of life.
I love you.