Many years ago, October 1994 to be specific, I faced the decision of life over death. With an incurable condition of a failing heart, my only option to stay alive was to undergo a heart transplant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but getting a new heart is often characterized as trading one chronic health condition for another, creating a lifelong dependence on immunosuppressant medications that would keep my native protective immune system from labeling the heart donated by another person as being a foreign invader to be attacked or rejected as an alien in my body.
With an average life expectancy of only nine years after receiving a heart transplant – a better alternative than the two years I would have had left to live if I relied on my failing heart without a replacement – I faced a grim reality that was still much shorter than most of us would like to think about. Now, in 2017 and 23 years later, I am living life to the fullest, further beating that estimated life expectancy with every passing year. Having faced death at the youthful age of 51, I now have a 74-year-old body with a 61-year-young heart (yes, as one of the small post-transplant population who has connected with their donor’s family, I know my heart was 38 at the time of donation).
As the years pass, I’ve successfully dealt with prostate cancer, different forms of skin cancer, kidney cancer and emergency gall bladder surgery, along with a host of other advancing age-related health challenges. Each mountain was subsequently passed with flying colors thanks to modern medicine, a great medical team and loving family support that continues to inspire me to face each day with a life-enhancing, positive outlook and attitude.
Though I may be living with a chronic condition, I consider the gift of life through organ donation not as overcoming death, but rather as an extension of life that offers so many daily opportunities to live each day to its fullest. Many describe life with a transplant not as a return to being normal, but rather living a new normal life. Yes, we all suffer from a chronic condition that leads to death, but that’s what being human means. That we can’t change, but how we live with that chronic condition, without letting it limit our daily lives, remains the challenge you and I face today and every day we survive with that condition.
Long ago I accepted the fleeting nature of life and face each day getting out of bed, as I look down at the floor and celebrate being above ground another day. And I see each day as another opportunity to make it my best day yet. I offer that outlook to you as you face your own daily challenge of a life facing your own chronic condition.
Jim Gleason is an author, heart transplant survivor and the current Philadelphia Chapter President for Transplant Recipients International Organization (TRIO).