Imagine having an annoying pain that you thought was just a pulled muscle. No, I am not referencing that episode of The Resident, a medical drama prime time series aired by Fox, where a young immigrant was having pains in her side and it ended up being a rare cancer. However, I am referring to a real-life hero story about Roxanne (an organ recipient) and Michael (an organ donor). Roxanne had complaints of side pain for about a week, but she continued to work because she thought it was a pulled muscle. She tolerated the pain for about six weeks before she arrived at the emergency room (ER) where she was diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (CVD). She was immediately taken into cardiac care, underwent extensive diagnostic test, and her medical team concluded they could not give her the required treatment locally. Roxanne was transferred to the Cardiac Care unit in Bronx, New York where she was admitted to the hospital for nine days of extensive medical consultations. Upon receiving the diagnostic results, her primary physician approached her with both good news and bad. The bad news was that her heart had started to fail; the good news was she was in a state of stable instability. Roxanne was placed on list to receive a heart transplant as Stat 2.
By Christmas 2009 Roxanne’s health started to rapidly fail. She was losing weight at a rate of five pounds per day going from an average weigh of about 140 lbs to less than 90 lbs. By the spring she was upgraded on the transplant list from a Stat 2 to a Stat 1; that was when she was offered her first heart. She accepted, but she was second priority of the patients admitted to receive the heart. Thus, the wait continued. The second viable heart offer came, but the heart itself was damaged. Roxanne never gave up hope. Although her health was rapidly declining, and her family was feeling the stress of potentially losing her, she held on to her faith that her healing would come. The next heart offer was made but the donor was HIV positive. At that time AIDS was considered a deadly disease, so she rejected the heart. At this point she had been in the hospital for 100 days; her prognosis was becoming grim. Seventy-eight days later an unfortunate accident caused her to get an offer.
Meanwhile, Michael, an E3 Fireman with the Coast Guard, was brought into the Bronx hospital after a motor vehicle accident. July 2010, his dream to become an Aviation Maintenance Technician and a Flight Mechanic was brought to an end. Upon being guided by his family he registered to become an organ donor. Michael was a generous person with a spirit that prompted him to help others even postmortem. However, to his parent’s dismay they lost their son that night and was faced with the decision to donate his organs. In their grief, it took them a few days to reconcile whether to offer his body up for organ donation. From Sunday to Wednesday for his family wrestled with making the decision. Michael was their only male offspring! How would a father, a mother loses an only son and have his organs scattered from hither to thither? To strangers nonetheless? Ultimately, the family decided to allow the medical team to make their son a lifesaver for people they may never know. Michael has saved people from different cultural backgrounds. Scott, a Caucasian male received a double lung transplant allowing him to become a father. Elijah, an African American male, the kidney recipient, was afforded the opportunity to complete high school. Zhou, an Asian was able to return to work with his liver transplant. Finally, Michael’s heart, the most important organ of the body, went to Roxanne. Michael and his family gave freely; without cultural limitations, transcending socioeconomic barriers, and without regret. This heroic story of a man that was guided by his family to be an organ donor and unbeknownst to them lost their oldest only son, I could imagine was the hardest decision they could have made, but a necessary one.
Michael through his tragic accident saved the lives of four people changing them forever. Roxanne, determined to make the most out of this opportunity to live another day, became an advocate for organ donations; possibly signing up a record number of donors with over 11,000 people committed to organ donation. Michael had given her another chance at life; one she would not take for granted. Upon asking if anything in her life had changed, she indicated she developed a love for power tools. She had never had an interest in them before, but now she made daily trips to Home Depot just to look at the tools and dream of projects that she could take on. Along her life’s journey she expressed her interest in meeting the donor’s family. She dreamed about how she would respond to meeting the mother of the person that saved her life. Serendipitously, she was in Home Depot during her regular wish trips and was approached by the staff from The Oprah Winfrey Show. She was invited to go on the show to tell her story and encourage people to become organ donors as well as increasing minority organ donation, but during the airing, she met the donor family. Oprah introduced her to Michael with a photo, and subsequently his parents came out. Roxanne could not look upon Michael’s father without emotion. She thought she would have that feeling about his mother, but she found there was a close father-son bond between the two. It was then she found that Michael had a passion for mechanics and working with his hands. He and his father worked together on projects and build a bond that can only be between a father and his son. Roxanne feels receiving the organ increased her desire for crafts. She has taken on some projects since but intends to continue with small do it yourself changes around her home. Roxanne remains in touch with the family and does various outreach and social projects together.
Roxanne has changed her activity of daily living to accommodate the dietary habits suggested by her nutritionist in addition to referencing a book she received outlining the things that she could and could not continue to remain healthy. She was adamant about following the instructions that were given because she did not want to risk damaging her new heart. She is now a self-proclaimed foodie although she had no interest in food or cooking to the extent she has developed. She has taken cooking classes and learned more details about mixing spices. Roxanne regularly attends conferences and deliver seminars to assist in her goal of encouraging people become organ donors. Roxanne has become an advocate for people that cannot advocate for themselves. This is an example that all can admire. Michael, real-life superhero, lives on though Roxanne as she goes on a mission to change people’s outlook on organ donations.
Anberitha Matthews, PhD is Vascular Scientist and Wellness Coach at Redefining Health, LLC. She is living a dream by researching vascular injury as it pertains to oxidative stress utilizing the data to help clients improve their quality of life, serves as Vice Chair for ATVB Communications and Membership Council of the AHA as well as perform consulting work with regard to scientific editing, grantsmanship, and protocol development. @AnberithaT