December 24th is a very meaningful day to a lot of people. In addition to its religious importance, for me it is my miracle day.
As a third-year Marketing Management student at TRSM, I was a healthy, active 20-year-old. In early December 2018 though, I developed a cough. A few days later, I was experiencing so much chest pain and trouble breathing that I was taken to the local hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia. Twenty-four hours later, the antibiotics weren’t helping, so my parents took me to Toronto General Hospital. Within 45 minutes, a cardiologist diagnosed me with heart failure – my heart was functioning at less than 10%.
From being admitted to the Coronary Intensive Care Unit, to undergoing my first open heart surgery for the installation of a BI-VAD to do the work for my heart, it became apparent that I needed a heart transplant. I received the gift of life and was blessed with a heart transplant on December 24, 2018. I was very fortunate for my second chance at life.
Everything happened very quickly. I had no family history of heart problems and the doctors are still not completely certain of the cause of my heart failure. They think it was a virus that had attacked my heart from over six months ago. I never showed signs because I was healthy and young. But once I started getting just a little bit sick, everything spiraled downhill from there.
I was at Toronto General Hospital for 27 days, and I think recovery was just as hard as actually going through the surgeries. A lot of people think that once you’re out of the hospital, you’re better. In the physical sense that could be true because your body is strong enough to go home. But while I may have been physically healthier, my mental health took a hard hit.
Although I am out of the hospital now, the journey will never end. Every transplant patient’s biggest fear is rejection. Since I am now immunosuppressed (it’s as if I have no immune system), I am more susceptible to getting sick. And if I do get sick, it can cause my body to start rejecting my new heart.
While I will never quite go back to “normal,” I have had to start living a “new normal.”
Support from the TRSM community
The support I received from TRSM and Ryerson was beyond what I could have asked for. I was unable to communicate with my professors or anyone else because of all the medication I was on and the pain I was in.
My mom had reached out to my Program Advisor to inform her that I was not going to be able to write my exams and would probably need to take a semester off of school. The Advisor was very understanding and exempt me from my exams and cancelled my Winter semester classes. My mom also got in touch with my Co-op Coordinator because I was supposed to be going to Montreal for a Co-op placement. The Co-ordinator called the employer and explained my situation and saved my spot in the Co-op program as well.
I also had a lot of help from the staff at TRSM. They acted like my second family in my most desperate time of need. A lot of students reached out as well. Some of them I had classes with, some of them were friends, some of them were from student groups I was involved with, and some of them I did not know but had seen my story on Instagram or heard about it through others. It was heart-warming to know how many students actually cared and how much of an impact I unknowingly made on the TRSM community. The messages I received were so beautiful and they helped me get through such a difficult time.
I was off of social media and my phone for a long time because I was preoccupied with the pain. When I felt better I started going back on it to share my story with hopes that I would be able to inspire people and raise awareness for organ donation and transplants. A lot of people, including my family, had never known anyone who had a transplant, so I believed it was my responsibility as a heart transplant patient to raise awareness and inform those who had been following my story.
Bonding through a shared experience
I came across a post on the TRSM Instagram page with a photo of a student, Saljoq Khurshid, and a caption that read he “was blind-sided with a serious health issue that derailed his schooling for a year.” That sentence hit me really hard because that was exactly how I was feeling. I always had a plan and a timeline for my schooling. I thought maybe if I reached out to him, even before knowing about his heart condition, that we could find similar experiences to talk about and get through it together.
While in the hospital and even post-transplant, mostly everyone that I had talked to were seniors or people a lot older than me, and they couldn’t relate to many aspects of my life. So, when I saw that post on the TRSM Instagram page, it gave me a sense of ease that I wasn’t the only student going through something like this. I decided to send a message to Saljoq to learn more about him and to share my experience too.
It wasn’t until after we connected that I found out that his serious health issue was more similar to mine than I thought. He had congestive heart failure and underwent open-heart surgery to fix it. Saljoq and I shared our stories and found so many parallels in what we went through. We connected about our times in the hospital, how we felt and how we have changed since then. It was really refreshing to meet someone my age who had been through something like me. To see how far he has come, and what he has accomplished since, gave me a lot of hope and actually inspired me to start a project called the Ryerson Gift of Life Project in support of organ donation.
The Ryerson Leadership Lab granted me seed money to get started on my project. The Ryerson Gift of Life Project aims to deal with the lack of awareness surrounding organ and tissue donation across Ontario by educating society to allow them to make informed decisions about becoming donors.
Some of our goals are to connect with as many high schools and high school students as possible to spread the word about organ and tissue donation. In Ontario, the youngest age to register to be a donor is 16 years old, so targeting high school students from the beginning will hopefully plant that seed in their minds and encourage them to register. We also hope to inform seniors about organ and tissue donation by visiting long-term care facilities and other institutions where we can capture senior audiences.
What I have learned
Going through a near-death experience changes you. The doctors didn’t know if I was going to make it, but against all odds I pulled through and I am here today. This experience has opened my eyes to a lot of things, but most importantly I was touched by the importance of family and community, the power of prayer and the need for organ donation awareness.
I was lucky enough to have gone through everything very quickly. I received a heart five days after the doctors told me I was #1 on the Canadian Transplant List. The average wait time for a heart is 114 days, a liver is 163 days, a lung is 83 days and a kidney is over four years.
Someone will die every 30 hours waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant and I was almost that someone. That’s why I have made it my mission to raise awareness for organ donation. I hope in sharing my story I can inspire people to not only consider becoming organ donors, but also to cherish every day.