Winter 2016 - Articles

Gift of the Heart

Gift of the Heart; photo of newborn baby

“How do you feel about a heart transplant? the surgeon asked my husband and me.

That question would have been terrifying enough if the doctor had been referring to one of us, but that wasn’t the case. He was asking about our 1-year-old son.

Nick, the youngest of our four, was born with a malformed heart. He had three chambers when he should have had four. He underwent his first surgery at only a few days old, another at three-and-one-half months, followed by seven weeks in the CICU on a respirator. At age 1, he underwent another surgery. Now, we were being asked to consider a heart transplant for our 20-month-old child.

In order to save Nick’s life we agreed to the transplant. He was placed on the national waiting list and received his new heart six weeks later.

His heart surgeon promised us that with a transplant Nick would have “quality of life,” and he has more than lived up to that. Since Nick’s heart transplant he has attended preschool, ridden the bus to school on his first day of kindergarten with his brothers and sister, learned to water ski and has traveled through 49 of the 50 states plus 13 European countries.

For me, “quality of life” has meant not seeing an empty chair at the dinner table, celebrating birthdays, enduring headlocks as Nick playfully wrestled me to the floor, and hearing the the whisper that he loves me before he goes out the door. Nick’s heart transplant not only gave him life; it added value to our family’s life and our friends’ lives as well.

Susan Carlisle May '81 and son Nick May

Today, 22 years later, despite the often-difficult road Nick has traveled, he attends college, works part time and has married. From a front-row seat I’ve watched a miracle unfold. As his mother, I’m humbled to have been a part of it.

Nick’s life wouldn’t have been possible without the selfless gift a family gave by donating their child’s organs during the most dreadful time in their lives. By every definition of the word, they are heroes. Nick is alive and well today because of the amazing gift he was given. My chest constricts at the gratitude that wells up in me when I think of the strangers who gave me my child’s life.

Most people think of organ donation in the same vein with making a will or planning a funeral. It’s something they don’t want to contemplate, much less discuss. But that is just what they need to do—tell their next of kin. Having it designated on your driver’s license isn’t enough. If you wish to be an organ donor, you must share this with your loved ones.

Beyond any doubt, organ donation saves lives. Nick’s life wouldn’t have been possible without the precious gift of a new heart. At our house, we know firsthand the importance of organ donation. I see it each day. Every anniversary of Nick’s transplant I remember the donor family who lost a child at the same time they saved mine. I say a prayer for them and look at my precious young man and thank God for them and him.

Susan Carlisle May ’81 and her husband, Thomas Andrew May   ’82, live in the Atlanta area. She is a published novelist, writing as Susan Carlisle; her nonfiction book written as S. Carlisle May is featured in the “Mixed Media” section of this issue of Auburn Magazine.