Before becoming a heart recipient, Stephanie Zimmerman, RN, MSN was a nurse practitioner caring for pediatric cancer patients.
This year, Stephanie** underwent biopsies of her donated heart to find out if it has been damaged by her immune system. Then during this terrible flu season, she spent over a month with a severe case of pneumonia. Susceptibility to infections and rejection of the donated organ are two of the many side effects of undergoing a transplant.
By Stephanie Zimmerman, RN, MSN
Two devastating events happened on April 21, 2008: 1) a beautiful, 17-year-old young woman died and 2) my heart died.
I lived; thanks to the generosity of strangers who transcended their grief and said yes to organ donation.
It has been a little more than 10 years since my heart failed, was amputated, and my donor’s heart – full of strength and hope – was seated in its place.
My gratitude is endless to my donor and her family. But there is grief mixed with joy.
I miss my heart and all that it meant to me. I miss the “spunk” it gave me as a person. I miss my heart that was all-a-flutter and radiant on my wedding day. The heart that lulled our son to sleep within my womb; the heart whose beat could sooth his cry. I miss the heart that was known to me, inside and out.
Perhaps some would judge me as having exceeded the allotted time for grieving such a loss. Others might judge me as being ungrateful. After all, I am alive, and my donor is not.
I confess: I have little patience for such judgment. Most critics have never experienced heart transplant themselves. They have not earned the right to speak into these moments of my life.
I also reject our culture’s commitment to rushing through losses rather than taking the time to steep in the new realities that walk hand-in-hand with each loss. I am not suggesting that we get stuck, but I believe we need the chance to sit with the lived experience of our losses, visible and invisible.
One doesn’t ‘get over’ the death of their heart; it’s an ongoing process-incorporating a new heart into the fabric of one’s being. Thankfully, I am at a point in my grief that I can use my lived experience to the benefit of others. I am healing: slowly, but surely.
Yet I will forever miss the beat of my own heart within my chest.
I miss the girl who carried her own heart within; the girl who was fun-loving and full of adventure. I miss the wife and mom who could laugh at the ridiculous things of this life rather than becoming insanely annoyed. I miss the girl who gave her professional life to the provision of healthcare, the healing of children and their families as they walked the road less traveled- the road of cancer. I miss the idealistic girl who drank in moments as a matter of habit, never once thinking that any given moment could be her last. I miss the innocence of the girl who believed that the end of treatment was the end of the story.
I miss the girl who could be carefree, who would run into a crowd without concern of infectious exposure; the girl who NEVER feared rejection of any kind.
By facing this grief, buried deep within my gratitude, I hope to find that girl again.
**Stephanie has been featured and has written guest posts for Medivizor: An Open Letter to Healthcare Providers and Creating a Multidisciplinary Healthcare Team. She shared her advice on advocacy in How Do I Advocate For Myself, her views on provider burnout in What Happens When a Calling Becomes a Job: “Not My Problem Healthcare” and her story in The Gift of Organ Donation: Honoring Donors and their Families.