Friday, December 17, 2010

Heroes Among Us

This was a very difficult post to write. My words could never do justice to the full extent of my gratitude or the incredible strength and character exhibited by my donor family, but this is my attempt. Denisha - thank you for allowing me to share our story.

What is a hero?

I would define a hero as someone with the opportunity, the instinct and the will to help others. Maybe it’s the guy that tipped 100% because the waitress looked like she was having a rough day. Maybe it’s the off-duty police officer that jumped in front of a moving train to save a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks. Maybe it’s the mother that starved herself to feed her children.

While I’ve looked up to a variety of people throughout my life, I’ve never really had a hero, per se. Now I have two – one that lives here on earth, and one whose time here was cut short but whose eternal spirit continues to glow. Their names are Denisha and T’neil, mother and daughter. They are the reasons I’m alive, though they would never accept such credit, instead giving all glory to God.

I never had the opportunity to meet T’neil, but I have learned so much about her and know she was a wonderful and beautiful young lady, full of life and loved by so many. She was a 17-year-old rising senior in high school who loved shopping and talking on the phone. She had dreams of joining the Navy, going to college and starting her own business. She had a rare disease that remained undetected until her final days and then took her life quickly. Her strong heart now beats inside of me.

T'neil, who gave me the gift of life.
While I haven’t yet met Denisha in person, I have exchanged letters, texts and phone calls with her. It’s difficult to find words that describe this wonderful woman, for I have never met anyone like her. Selfless, generous, thoughtful, faithful, loving – none of these words is strong enough. In the wake of her daughter’s death, impossibly, Denisha was praying for my recovery and good health. She was worried about me. It is patently clear that Denisha misses her daughter dearly, yet the strength of her faith provides comfort and carries her forward. T’neil had not self-identified as an organ donor, so Denisha was tasked with this difficult decision in what must have been the most painful moments of her life. Yet, she doesn’t describe it as a choice at all. God told her this was T’neil’s opportunity to help others. And help others she did – T’neil was able to donate a multitude of organs and tissue – impacting the lives of more people than can be counted on two hands and saving the lives of several of us.

Denisha has other children, one of whom is T’neil’s twin sister. The pain being experienced by this teenager is simply unimaginable and nothing anyone should have to endure. I hope that she shares her mother’s faith and takes comfort in the lives that her sister improved and saved. I’m sure T’neil lives on in her heart just as much as she lives on in mine.

Denisha and her family associate butterflies with T’neil’s continued presence. In the final days of her life, butterflies kept appearing to her family. They also like to burn candles to allow T’neil’s eternal light to glow. Maybe you will light a candle today in T’neil’s honor and say a prayer for her family.

These are true heroes. They were given the unenviable opportunity to help others in a significant way. The instinct to help came automatically and without hesitation. And they acted on those instincts to deliver the ultimate gift to many fortunate people. Because of this heroism, I am alive today. As I told Denisha, because of this heroism, I can use the word “yet” in so many sentences. I haven’t started a family yet. I haven’t written a book yet. I haven’t skied in the Alps yet. Whether she accepts credit for it or not, Denisha gave me a future, and for that I am eternally grateful.

As I think of T’neil, Denisha and their family, Mariah Carey’s “Hero” comes to mind. Some of the lyrics are below.

To my heroes, thank you. I look forward to meeting you soon. In the meantime, lots of love from my heart.

Mariah Carey – "Hero"

There's a hero
If you look inside your heart
You don't have to be afraid
Of what you are
There's an answer
If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Old People Are My People

Old folks have many interesting traits and behaviors, many of which I’ve had the opportunity to study closely over these past 14 months. As you know, I’ve been exposed to this population with an abnormal level of regularity, given my 29 years of age. When I was first in the CCU, I think I was literally the only patient under eighty. During my first visit to the cath lab, I determined I had more teeth than the rest of the patients combined. And at cardiac rehab, there were a few youngsters (in their fifties), but I brought down the average age quite a bit each time I showed up.

One of the most entertaining parts of rehab was observing the staff attempting to communicate with my fellow exercisers, as the fifty-plus crowd is not known for its keen hearing. On my first day, I met a very sweet man we’ll call Dave, who is probably about sixty-five. We became fast friends as we walked at tortoise-like speeds on the treadmill and moved slightly faster than molasses on the stationary bikes. He was my exercise buddy my first few days there, until the rigor of my work out mercifully surpassed his. [After all, age difference aside, I have a healthy new heart – he does not.] Anyway, we remained buddies but no longer followed the same circuit around the gym, so I kept an eye on him as I progressed through my work outs. At least once a day, one of the staff members would instruct him to check his heart monitor leads or ask him a question and receive a blank grin in response. Poor Dave, it turns out, can barely hear a thing. Watching this happen again and again got me wondering if he ever heard anything I said. Were we really buddies those first few days, or did he just wonder why the dumb blonde girl was moving her mouth so much?

Thankfully, I only came across the next example of unique geriatric behavior once. This old fart – quite literally – was blatantly passing gas during his entire work out. And guess who kept finding herself at equipment adjacent to him…ME. When he walked on the treadmill, I was directly behind him. When I was on the air bike (you know, the one that has a fan that blows air while you pedal?), he all but planted himself right in front of me so the fan was blowing his gas into my face as I gasped for air. Gross.

The most enviable thing about old people is their total lack of insecurity. They know who they are, and for the most part don’t care what anyone else thinks – about their clothes, about their opinions…or about their Zumba skills. Several weeks ago I attended a diabetes seminar at the hospital, the theme of which was the importance of exercise for diabetics. Not surprisingly, I was one of two people under 60 in attendance (most were well over 70 and quite overweight). Before the speaker took the stage, the audience was treated to two brief yoga lessons, in which the instructors appropriately tailored their exercises for the geriatric crowd. To really drive home the message that exercise can be fun, a spunky probably-twenty-one-year-old Zumba instructor bounced onto the stage next and insisted that the crowd participate. If you aren’t familiar with Zumba, it is basically a combination of Latin dancing (think lots of hips) and hip hop moves (think lots of booty shaking). Now, bring yourself back to the 70+ audience. It was one of the most entertaining and ridiculous things I have seen in a long time – I spent the entire fifteen minutes wishing as hard as I could that someone could be there to witness it with me and cursing my antiquated phone, which lacks video capability. There was not one audience member whose movements resembled those of the instructor, even a little bit. But they didn’t care, for their inhibitions disappeared decades ago.