In many ways, the courses of our lives are determined by strangers: people on admissions committees, policymakers, public figures, and, more recently, influencers. Yet, at the same time, the world is quite small. For instance, I was once in China on a school trip when one of my friends happened to run into her cousin on the Great Wall; she had no idea that her cousin was even in China. Coincidences like these can’t help but make me wonder just how much is connected, how much we are connected.
Last fall, during a session with my organic chemistry tutor, we got to talking about his career path; he went to medical school and eventually worked many different jobs in healthcare, including a brief stint on the organ procurement team at Michigan Medicine. I asked him when that was, and we eventually made the connection that he was likely on the helicopter that transported my dad’s donor heart in 2007.
I’m now a junior at Michigan with just about two years of living on campus under my belt. However, moving into my freshman dorm in the fall of 2019 didn’t exactly feel like a huge transition; for a while, when I was five, Ann Arbor was like home. During the day I went to kindergarten in Birmingham and, at night, I went to visit my dad who was waiting for a new heart— not his first, but his second.
As I begin the grueling process of preparing my medical school applications I concurrently begin the requisite self-reflection, poising myself to be able to explain to an interviewer precisely why I want to go into medicine. I think back to the day my dad was discharged from the hospital after his transplant. As his eldest and only daughter I was convinced that his care would fall completely into my hands; my now six-year-old conscience couldn’t be cleared until I spoke with his surgeon, Dr. Pagani. I escorted him into a family waiting room and grilled him about my dad’s post-operative care. Instead of brushing me off, he took the time to answer every one of my questions, each of which probably added a good ten minutes to his workday. It was then when I realized what it meant to be a doctor, beyond what I learned from my $14.99 Fisher-Price® medical kit. It was then when I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I wanted to be like him. I wanted to give someone else’s young daughter some role in her dad’s care, anything to make her feel like she can do something to help. Not the hotshot, aloof, automaton but instead perhaps the opposite.
Unlike the two strangers who tragically passed and so graciously donated their hearts, their families, and the strangers at UNOS who decided my dad was eligible to receive them, the team of people who worked to save his life are not so unfamiliar to me. In fact, they’re not only the reason why I’m writing this right now or why I’m working to become a doctor but also why I’m here today, as my dad’s first transplant was in 1995, just a year before he met my mom. So, to Drs. Deeb and Nicklas, and especially to Dr. Pagani, thank you— I have some enormous shoes to fill.
-Emma Morganroth, Wolverines for Life Undergraduate Chapter
In 1984, at the age of 3 1/2, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. I immediately began chemo, which continued until 1989. I have been in remission ever since but, unfortunately, the chemo caused a cardiomyopathy which was discovered at age 14. At that point, I was put on a small amount of medications and my heart was stable until I had major back surgery in 2002.
I got a post-op infection, which caused a lot of damage to my heart and caused me to need more meds and closer monitoring. I was able to bounce back fairly well but I was hospitalized periodically for bouts of congestive heart failure. The doctors would get the fluid off, tweak my meds, and I’d be good to go again.
About two years ago, my kidney function started to decline slightly, which is not uncommon for someone that has a compromised heart for as long as I did. The plan was to monitor the kidneys more closely but not do anything at that point. I was aware that down the road, intervention may be needed but never thought it’d be so soon. I also knew that I was potentially going to need a new heart at some point, but again, not as soon as it turned out to be.
In March of this year, I had what was supposed to be a minor surgery to remove an overactive parathyroid gland. However, it turned out to be anything but. The surgery put me in severe kidney failure (most likely because my kidney function was already compromised) and I was immediately put on dialysis. I spent 11 days in the hospital and was discharged with outpatient dialysis three days a week.
In June, I was hospitalized again, this time for heart failure. My heart function had declined significantly and after two days my cardiologist sent me to the University of Michigan to begin evaluation for a new heart and kidney. I was officially put on both the heart and kidney transplant list on July 1st and 17 hours later a donor was found. I received my new heart on July 2nd and my new kidney on July 3rd. My recovery has been much easier and smoother than I ever thought it would be, and I am extremely thankful for that.
On October 5th I was able to return to work and haven’t looked back since. There are not enough words to convey my gratefulness to my donor and his or her family. Because of them, I have a second chance at life. I get to watch my kids grow up, get married, and have their own families. It is my hope that I will one day be able to meet the family of my donor who so selflessly gave life to others in their hour of despair.
-Danny Britton II
I am blessed to be able to share part of my story. First a little about me, I have been married to David for 24 years, have two sons who are 20 and 17, co-own a public policy consulting firm in Lansing, and am very active - hiking, skiing, kayaking, traveling, etc.
Because I was a healthy, active 44-year-old with no medical issues whatsoever, I was not overly concerned when I went to my family doctor on November 12, 2018 after experiencing shortness of breath and general fatigue for a couple of days. I assumed I was developing a chest cold having run myself ragged in recent weeks between running a business, grad school, and the busy-ness of family life. However, at the doctor’s office, an EKG showed I was having a major heart issue and I was quickly taken to the hospital by ambulance. A CT scan, heart cath, and other tests revealed I was inexplicably in congestive heart failure and I was originally misdiagnosed as having stress-induced cardiomyopathy. I had no history of medical issues, nor did anyone in my extended family have heart issues.
After nearly a week in ICU, I was getting progressively worse with cardiac output around 25%. In addition to my heart, other organs were showing signs of failure. I insisted on being transferred to the University of Michigan – patient advocacy that likely saved my life. At UM, a heart biopsy revealed that I had giant cell myocarditis, a very rare, irreversible condition with an unknown cause. This diagnosis was the worst news we could get. The only solution was a heart transplant, and I needed one within days. Family, friends, and colleagues rallied beside me – everyone in shock that this could be happening to me.
I was immediately placed on ECMO, a life support system to ensure my organs and tissues received adequate oxygen. Because of my grave condition, steps were taken to quickly place me on the transplant list. Miraculously, the following day, Thanksgiving Day 2018, a donor match was found. It was truly a Thanksgiving miracle. I had a successful surgery during the night.
To recap how fast things happened, I arrived at UM on a Sunday night. Monday I had a biopsy, Tuesday I received the diagnosis and was put on ECMO, Wednesday I was placed on the transplant list, Thursday a donor match was found, and Friday a new heart was beating in my chest. From my visit to my family doctor thinking I was getting a chest cold to having a new heart was just eleven days.
Regaining my physical strength, adjusting to changes in how my heart operates, and adapting to taking large doses of medications, not to mention just adjusting to how my life had changed was a lot to take in in such a short period of time. Nurses, doctors, social workers, physical therapists, volunteers, and so many others were exceptional in their caregiving and sharing information to help me recover.
An experience like this changes you. I am so deeply grateful for my heart donor, the team at Michigan Medicine, my incredible support network, and to God for my second chance at life. I have a greater appreciation for what it means to show up for people when they are experiencing crises. And I am blessed to be living a full life!
Rachel is currently serving as a volunteer transplant peer mentor at Michigan Medicine and Gift of Life Michigan, as well as a board member at Gift of Life Foundation. To read more about Rachel's story, click any of the following links:
My name is Connor Burke and I am a Junior studying biochemistry at the University of Michigan. After my Freshman year, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I was 19 at the time which landed me in the "Adolescent/Young Adult" category, but my doctors put me on an aggressive treatment plan inspired by the conventional pediatric treatment protocol. While "aggressive" seems an appropriate label from a clinical perspective, one that is more descriptive from a patient's perspective would be "debilitating." For seven months, the best thing I could do for myself was to avoid health complications like getting sick, breaking bones, or excessively bleeding, because anything of this nature could force a change to the treatment plan and reduce the chance of a positive health outcome.
Implicit in this objective to avoid complications is the necessity to maintain acceptable (albeit lower than normal) blood counts. Red blood cell counts below a certain threshold increases the chance of fainting and getting hurt, and a lack of platelets makes it difficult to form a clot if I was to ever get even a small cut, allowing blood to exit and germs to enter. I was on a variety of medications to deal with symptoms and side-effects of chemotherapy, but none of them worked quite as remarkably as blood transfusions. So far, I have received six units of packed red blood cells, four units of platelets, and two units of cryoprecipitate. Fatigue is almost constant for many leukemia patients, but the transfusions of packed red blood cells gave a temporary reprieve from the fatigue when it was at its worst. The platelets and cryoprecipitate made my numbers look better on paper, and also put my mind at ease that I would not get a spontaneous bloody nose. All of the transfusions have been instrumental in allowing my treatment to progress the way it is supposed to.
Treatment is going well, and following the intense seven months of treatment, I began the much lighter maintenance phase of treatment. If all continues to go well, I will be declared "cancer-free" in October of 2022, but even after that, I will be ineligible to donate blood due to my history of having a blood cancer. So, to help anyone who finds themselves in a position similar to mine now or any time in the future, I would encourage anyone who is able to donate blood.
-Connor Burke, Blood Drives United Executive Team
When I was 13-years-old, I was diagnosed with kidney disease. I received my first kidney transplant about three or four months later from my mom. I was on dialysis for a while. My mom gave me a normal kid's life from there. My kidney lasted almost 20 years until it failed again.
I was once again on many different kinds of dialysis for three years. Then on August 22, 2013 I was on the way home from helping my mom babysit my nephew when I got a call from the hospital saying there may be a kidney for me. They had to wait because there was some trauma with the organ. Two days later, they told me to go to the hospital; the kidney was good enough to do a transplant.
Once I got there, I had to decide whether or not to do the transplant I weighed my decision and I decided to go through with the transplant. Now over seven years since my transplant, I have never felt better. I'm 42 years old but I have had so much energy, I feel like I am in my early 20s.
One of the things I cherish about my second transplant is the many friends that I have made through organizations and groups like Gift of Life Michigan and Wayne State Gift of Life. I will also cherish my bachelor's degree in Accounting from Wayne State University that I received in 2018. When I graduated, I looked in the sky above Ford Field said thank you to my donor. I'm also grateful that in 2019, I finally got connected with my donor family.
Every year I sent letters to my donor family, like many other transplant recipients. I participated in the annual Gift of Life Campus Challenge with Wayne State Gift of Life. In 2019, for the fourth year in a row, we got to go on Fox 2 News for an interview with Amy Andrews. I was on with a few other young ladies who had their own beautiful donor stories.
About a month later, I decided to check my Wayne State email. Since I had already graduated, I hadn't checked in a few days. I got another email from Amy Andrews; she forwarded an email from my donor family. It said that they wanted to contact me through email to tell me more about my donor. They did not want to meet me just yet and that was perfectly fine with me. My donor family and I would email each other a few times a year; I would tell them what I was doing and they would tell me a little bit about my donor.
My donor was a loving person who loved her family. She was a soccer player. According to my donor family, she would train like a champion at whatever she does. I have continued this legacy because I am going to the Transplant Games in New Jersey next year; every time I go out and train I use #trainlikeachampion. She volunteered at an animal shelter. She also studied to be a nurse. She wanted to help people and, you know what, she succeeded. I always think of her and try to do the best I can do.