December 16, 2021

TransplantLyfe Interview from Alisha with Denise

The transplant field is filled with many heartbreaking and inspiring stories. Some linger deep in the soul and provoke action. This is the situation my friend, Denise, found herself in. Denise is a heart-transplant recipient herself who, in the middle of her own personal transplantation experience, started the HeartFelt Help Foundation.

Having been sick her entire life, the medical world wasn’t new to Denise. Prior to her lifesaving transplant, Denise had been shocked multiple times, had 3 ICD’s, and had more hospital stays than she could keep track of. Despite knowing her situation would almost certainly end in  transplant or death, she believed a heart transplant was something that wouldn’t happen to her. 

In December 2017, Denise was given the news by her doctor that without a transplant she wouldn’t survive more than a year. And so Denise went home and planned her funeral.

She selected music and spoke to her pastor. And, upon finalizing her last wishes, Denise endured a ventricular tachycardia attack. 

Denise was rushed to the hospital via ambulance, and after multiple hospital transfers, she arrived at Stanford where she would wait until a heart became available. 

Three weeks after being admitted, at 11:30 pm on January 30, 2018, a call came. There was a heart that had become available, and while it was high risk, it was Denise’s if she chose to accept. She called her husband on the phone and they discussed this offer, which she describes as feeling more like a real-estate transaction than being given a second chance at life. 

The surgery took a long 12.5 hours. Due to internal bleeding, Denise had a follow-up surgery later that night, and again a week later. She faced infection, both types of rejection, and her post-transplant hospital stay ended up being far longer than the stay she faced prior to receiving her new heart.

In April of 2018, Denise returned home, and in July, she began rehab and the slow process of learning how to live again with a new heart. As she recovered, Denise made a vow to live as though her donor was watching. And in the midst of rehabilitation and her own complicated recovery, something shifted. 

In a waiting room, she overheard a conversation where someone would be moved down the transplant list since they could not provide adequate funding for post-transplant housing. And, Denise, a firecracker of a woman still recovering from her own complicated surgery, knew deep down in her soul that this wasn’t ok, that no one should be denied lifesaving organs because of their financial or housing status, and that she would be the one to do something about it. Denise became the difference she longed to see in the world as she interrupted the meeting, in typical Denise fashion, and put her foot down, insisting she would find a way to gather the funds so this individual could have a safe place to stay post-transplant and not be moved down the list.

Enter the Heartfelt Help foundation. It began as an effort to raise money for one person’s post-transplant housing. But the lack of safe and affordable transplant housing close to major transplant centers doesn’t just affect one person, and once the fire had been ignited to make a difference, there was no way to simply turn it off. In 2020, Heartfelt Help Foundation became an approved non-profit organization with a focus on supporting transplant patients in California and providing post-transplant housing close to the hospital. 

I could see the emotion on Denise’s face as she spoke, and her stories of those she has helped through her organization translated into pure joy. I felt it, too, as she explained that nonprofits are there to fill in the gaps and provide a safe place for people who have nowhere else to turn. 

“Transplant is a new life,” Denise said. “And, it shouldn’t create additional worry in life.”

I asked Denise how, in the middle of her own struggle, she continues to reach out and provide for others, and she told me that it is from others that she draws her inspiration. Her sense of value comes from serving others, and in the end, it doesn’t matter what she has but how many lives she has been able to touch.

Tomorrow isn’t promised. And, if there was ever a time to make a difference, it’s now. Denise is a shining example of drawing from personal pain to create beauty and building a life full of thriving for herself and others post-transplant.