JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Michele Callahan was never sure if she would be alive to meet her granddaughter. Now, after receiving a life-saving heart transplant, she spends as much time with her and with family as possible.
Callahan was on a conference call with work when she suddenly had extreme pain in her chest. She was rushed to the hospital and discovered she was having a heart attack. She was 54 years old and said she had been in perfect health.
Doctors could not find any blockage in her arteries or any clear explanation for the heart attack. She went home.
“Two weeks later, I was cooking dinner, and I had another heart attack,” she explained.
This time she had more tests, but was again left without real answers.
“None of them could really come up with a reason that made sense for heart attacks,” she said.
She and her husband decided to move to Jacksonville, so she could be seen and cared for by Mayo Clinic doctors. She said she was placed on several medications, which worked for a while.
“I would have really good weeks, sometimes really good months, and then there would be weeks where I would be in bed for 20 hours a day,” she said.
She said she was afraid to leave the house or to be alone, worried she would have another heart attack and no one would be there to help her or perform CPR.
Her doctors determined she needed a heart transplant. She was added to the organ donor wait list and told because of her small size and the size of her chest cavity, the donor would need to be someone small, maybe even an adolescent.
“That gave me a lot of anxiety because I am a mother myself and I would think about my own daughter and I would think about what that family would be going through,” she explained. “I knew when I got the call that means another mother is going through something terrible.”
She was on the wait list for about nine months and started to feel better. Doctors thought the medication she was taking would be enough to help her and she was removed from the list.
But, then she became sick and each time she recovered, it took longer. About 18 months later, Callahan was added back to the list and received the call three months later: A heart was available.
“It’s a day you will never forget. It’s a phone call you will never forget,” said Callahan.
When she woke up from surgery, she said it was an amazing feeling.
“The first thing I noticed was how easy it was to breathe and what a relief it was,” she said.
She described being able to hear her heartbeat in her ear and feel it throughout her body, making her realize how weak her heart had been before the transplant.
She can now travel with her husband, to make up for years lost when she was afraid to leave the house. She spends as much time as possible volunteering and talking with teenagers about the importance of organ donation.
She said she does not know much about her donor but does write to the young woman’s family every six months. She tells them all the things she is able to do thanks to their loved one and also sends pictures.
Once a day, she said, she places her hand over her heart and talks to her donor, grateful for the gift of life. She has named her heart, Sammy from Miami, after her favorite nurse and because she thinks her donor lived in South Florida.
More than 5,000 people in Florida are waiting for an organ donation. More than 20 people die every day waiting for one.
If you would like to learn more about organ donation, visit www.donatelifeflorida.org.