A Grateful Heart: One Woman’s Transplant Journey
Advocacy Karen Hill, a heart transplant patient, is grateful for a new heart, a second chance and a special relationship with her donor’s family.
When Karen Hill received a heart transplant on October 3, 2014, she understood that the life-saving new beginning for her was a life-ending tragedy for someone else. Beyond that, however, she knew very little about the person whose heart she would be receiving. “I knew that he was young and that his story had been in the news, but because it is anonymous I didn’t know much other than my donor was a teenaged boy in the New York area.”
Just a few months after the transplant, however, Karen received word from her transplant coordinator that the donor’s family wanted to meet her. There were mixed emotions at first. “I really wanted to meet them, but was still coming to terms with my experience and that someone on the other end was going through something so unfortunate.”
A few months later, Karen met the family of her donor – Thomas Cutinella, a young man who had died following a tragic football injury. “It was very touching to meet his parents and learn more about him. He had signed up to donate organs just two months before he died, but they never thought they’d have to make that decision so soon.”
“Though I knew it would be better in the long run, it sort of felt like things changed overnight, and it was hard to digest that I needed a transplant.”
The path to transplantation
Karen led a normal life until she was 11 years old, when she went to an emergency room following a minor accident. Although the shoulder she was there to check out was fine, a doctor noticed that her heart was enlarged. It was a life-changing moment. “We were learning about organs in school and I thought it was fascinating, but didn’t understand the lifelong ramifications.”
For the first ten years following her diagnosis of idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, Karen’s activities were somewhat restricted, but she mostly managed her condition with medication and diet. Her life went on without major incident until her senior year in college when, just two days before graduation and one final still looming, Karen learned she needed a transplant. “Though I knew it would be better in the long run, it sort of felt like things changed overnight, and it was hard to digest that I needed a transplant.”
For the next few months, Karen’s health deteriorated further. It was a terrible kind of limbo, she says. “If you’re too well, you can’t get a transplant, but if you’re too sick you can’t have one, either.” On October 3, she received the news that a heart was available, and had the transplant a few hours later.
Life after surgery
It’s been more than three years since Karen received a new heart. While there will always be challenges associated with having a heart transplant, she says life is going very well and that she’s looking forward to getting married in September. “I’m so happy and blessed to be where I am, and so thankful to my donor and friends and family. Going through this experience was life-changing in more ways than one, like connecting with people in my life who matter – including my donor family.”