When I started my Advanced Heart Failure/Transplant fellowship, my program director told me this year would change my life. I thought, “Yeah okay, whatever.” Boy, did that year change my life. The way I looked at the world changed entirely. Transplant is one of the most incredible medical therapies available to patients with end-stage heart, kidney, and liver disease, amongst others. Because of the generosity of the donor and the donor’s family, someone else is given a second chance at life. I always tell my heart transplant patients that they should now be celebrating 2 birthdays every year- to commemorate the gift of life given to them a second time over.
When I say that year changed my life, it truly did, and that change is lasting. When we’re on heart donor call and we’re evaluating hearts for suitability for our recipients, they’re usually younger hearts and cause of death is almost always unexpected. The stories are tragic- suicides, car accidents, freak accidents, and unintended drug overdoses, amongst other causes of death. As I sit in my pajamas (donor heart evaluations happen in the middle of the night a lot) on my laptop making sure I look through all personal and medical details available to me, I can’t help but create an image in my mind of who this donor is, what they may have looked like, where they worked, how much pain they must have been in if their death was intentional, and most gut-wrenching is all the people they left behind. Death is never easy, but when the donors are young, when the deaths are intentional, when the deaths are completely unexpected, it makes me realize how grateful we should be for this life we are living.
That year completely changed how I look at the world. No longer was I going to “sweat the small stuff” whether they were work related or personal. Every donor call reminds me that we sometimes spend so much time, energy, and emotions on things that, in the grand scheme of life, are truly insignificant. I became a happier and more content person. This year taught me that human connections are the most important thing in this world. My family, the friends I consider family, my friends at work, my patients, and all the people I cross paths with that have an impact on my life.
And on the other side of death, after I have pictured this life lost and the family and friends they’ve left behind, I get to tell one of our patients with end-stage heart failure that a heart “has become available” to them and now their life is going to change. I can’t imagine how they feel but I’ve heard all kinds of the emotions on the other end of that phone- tears, shock, anxious smiles that can be heard through the phone, and more tears. My patients tell me it’s a very emotional experience from the time they’re listing. Some have said it feels weird to be “waiting for someone to die” so that they can live. Some have noted guilt. Some of my patients have developed relationships with their donor’s families and I can only imagine how surreal that must feel.
What I do know is that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else and that being a Transplant Cardiologist has truly changed my life. I am grateful to the patients who have allowed me to play a small role in their journey and forever grateful to the donors and their families for this incredible gift of life.
Nasrien E. Ibrahim, MD is an Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiologist and Director of Heart Failure Research at Inova Heart & Vascular Institute. She is interested in biomarkers, cardiac remodeling, access to healthcare, understanding mechanisms of health inequities, and women’s leadership in academia. She loves college basketball, hip hop, the beach, and LeBron James. You can follow her at @DrNasrien