It took me almost 17 years to believe it was OK for me to be a transplant recipient.
I was always fighting it. I was always trying to prove I was other things first; a regular kid, an artist, a dancer, a student, cool (lol), whatever. I would come up with things and then try to convince myself and others that I was those things. I was still me! Not just a heart transplant recipient. This has been such a huge part of the last 20 years of my life.
At one point around when I was 25-26, I started to realize how unhappy I was with where I had ended up. I was quiet, I had a job I hated, I felt like I had no energy for anything else, I had no friends who I could relate to, and I absolutely knew I needed a massive shift. I needed to redesign my life.
I don’t exactly know how I knew what to do, (I did have help) but I knew it had to be one thing at a time. First, it was the job. I needed to go back to school and do something that felt important. It took time for me to figure out what that was. It took even longer for me to find a school that would give me a chance considering the horrible average I had with my last attempts at school. But I found it. I found the school and the program. I was going to go into communications. What better way to learn to open up? It worked.
Throughout my new academic career, I started to open up. More and more of my projects became organ donation or mental health related. I did major projects on advertising around organ donation and the stigma and myths that prevent people from registering. There are many and I found it very interesting to learn about. But it didn’t end there. I also had to present these projects in front of my peers. I had to stand up in front of them and proudly display this research I had done for a cause that I obviously didn’t just stumble upon. Little by little I started outing myself as a transplant recipient.
At one point, while I was in school, I stumbled upon this event “The Canadian Transplant Games”. I had never heard about them before. It was the 8th year they had taken place. I was surprised that I had never heard of such a cool event. At the time I heard about them it was too late for me to register and I was not in very good shape. I was definitely not going to forget about this discovery any time soon and maybe I could go to the next ones. I had this fire lit inside me that doubt kept trying to extinguish. Sometimes when you gotta do something, you just gotta do it. No matter how much the voices in your head are trying to hold you back. Then I found out the next games would be in Vancouver. If you believe in signs, this was a major sign that I had to go. It was my dream destination. I had to go. But my doubt didn’t leave me alone until the absolute last minute and it almost won.
Sitting in my doctor’s office for my annual checkup, I was as quiet as ever. I had the medical forms for the games in my hands and I was shuffling them around. The nurse asked me all the usual questions that I don’t pay much attention to so I can’t remember them. I just try to make sure I say yes and no at the right times so they don’t freak out while trying to get through the questions as fast as possible. She had clearly seen the papers I was playing with. I don’t remember if I made a sound or if my dad did. I couldn’t do it. Just thinking about it now the idea of asking them to fill out those medical forms makes me feel like crying. It’s overwhelming asking for something that felt so important. I needed them. They were the only barrier keeping me from going to the Vancouver Transplant Games. I was so scared they would say no. I’m very healthy but in that moment my mind went to every little thing: my blood pressure is a little high, my heart rate is a little fast, I’m not that strong or fit, they’re going to say no! Of course, my blood pressure and heart rate were high! I wasn’t comfortable being in a hospital. They would even joke around and call it “white coat syndrome”. Meaning being around health care workers freaks me out and rightly so. Sometimes growing up doesn’t mean the scary things are any less scary and that’s ok.
“What do you have there?” the nurse asked. I must have managed to get the words out because she got all excited, had me hand her the forms and filled them all out immediately. She even asked if I’d like to speak about my experience to a group of transplant recipients after I went. “OK!”. Everything changed that day.
I went to the Canadian Transplant Games with my family and participated in the 5km cycling event. I met so many amazing people and heard so many wonderful stories. I didn’t know there were so many of us. I wasn’t alone anymore. I met a guy who was at the time 32 years post heart transplant. There were people of all ages from all over Canada with all kinds of transplants and amazing stories all in one place for one event. I brought home a silver medal and what felt like a whole new life of possibilities. (If this ain’t me telling you to do the things that scare you… well that’s exactly what I’m doing.)
Since then, I’ve been able to connect with even more incredible people living in my own community. I’ve marched in the Help Santa Toy Parade, volunteered at booths, told my story to various groups, and started this blog. I’ve also been working hard to prepare for the Winnipeg 2022 games!
Even today, when I tell people I’ve had a heart transplant, they are shocked. When I add that it was 20 years ago, they are even more shocked. The really funny thing is, so am I! It blows my mind and sometimes even I forget about it. That’s why it’s so amazing. The interesting thing is, I’ve already gotten my shot. I can just sit back and enjoy life and keep pretending like it never happened. And that would be totally OK (maybe not the pretending part)! That’s exactly what many recipients do. They’ve been given a new chance at life and they are living. That’s exactly what I did for a very long time. That just didn’t work for me. Opening up and telling my story is what got me here. My point is, one of the coolest parts of organ donation is that there is this huge community of us that still get to be here, that are healthy, happy, and living our lives, and because of how well organ donation works, you may not even know who we are.