I stood on the stage and paused for a moment, taking in the hundreds of little faces staring attentively at me. To my right was a wheelchair, a somewhat sleeker black version than the rickety one I’d used in the hospital.
Slung across my body was what looked like a large square purse to the kids, but essentially held my heartbeat. It contained two heavy rectangular batteries, each the length of an old videotape, connected to wires that led to a donut-sized heart pump implanted in my abdomen.
My jeans carefully masked the titanium metal bar that now served as my leg. I was 16 years old.
The program was called “Everybody Counts.” For a week, children in the elementary school tried out wheelchairs for a shift in perspective, and I was the culminating inspirational speaker.
How did I get here again?
It was hard to believe that just months earlier, I wasn’t expected to live through the night. It all began innocently enough. I was at a restaurant with my parents when I suddenly felt wooziness, followed by a painful pressure in my chest and neck, and heaviness in my arms.
Having never been prone to a health issue worse than strep throat, I assumed an unknown food allergy was the culprit, a minor passing episode.
When someone called 911, I was both floored and irritated. It couldn’t be that serious. I still had homework to do, important auditions to prepare for the next day.
At a local hospital, a cardiologist uttered the words no one expected to hear:
“Massive heart attack.”
A blood clot, the source of which is still unknown, lodged in the major artery leading to the left side of my heart. Within hours, the Last Rites were said for me and the doctors didn’t expect me to live through the night.
A heart transplant was my last hope, but because there is a critical shortage of organ donors, none could save me at the time.
That’s when the experimental heart pump, known as an LVAD, was implanted to function as the destroyed left side of my heart, while I waited hopefully for a heart transplant.
More turmoil awaited my parents when surgical complications caused an infection in my left leg, posing a dangerous threat to my life.
They had to make the heart-breaking decision to amputate above the knee, not knowing how I would handle it, if I even managed to survive.
When I finally regained consciousness, I had no concept of what I’d been through. Reality finally sank in when they showed me my picture on the front page of the local newspaper with a giant headline that read “Suddenly, a Teen’s Life Put On Hold”. My life was never going to be the same.
I’d done everything right: I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or have high cholesterol. I was young, athletic, co-captain of my high school tennis team. Was life some cruel joke?
That fateful news article was the first of many media outlets to cover my story over the years. What I realized was that I had a choice: I could get angry about a past I couldn’t change, or I could accept my new reality and make it one that I could be proud of.
After six weeks in the hospital, I returned to school on my heart pump, relearned how to walk with a prosthetic leg, and was determined to reclaim as much of my life as possible.
With the media attention came unexpected requests to speak about my experiences, the first of which was the “Everybody Counts” presentation. The irony was that I’d always enjoyed public speaking, so much that I’d wanted to become a news reporter one day.
The smiles, the questions, and the hugs I received from these little kids were my first glimpse at the impact I could have on others’ lives. I hoped that by meeting me, they’d see past the disabilities in other kids.
Instead of a tragedy, my experiences became a positive tool I could use to help other people, and I started sharing my experience around the country.
I discovered that adversity was universal: it didn’t matter how old or young the audience was, or whether they’d faced a major health crisis—everyone related to the message on some level.
After my talks, people relayed intimate details about challenges they’d faced in their own lives: struggles with work and life direction, stresses in their relationships with friends and family.
It was a type of sharing I’d only previously experienced with my closest family members and friends. Adversity was our common bond, our instant connection that spoke to the core of our humanity.
When organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA) approached me about bringing a voice to heart disease awareness in women, I realized that sharing my story was a powerful way to advocate for causes that were meaningful to me.
I spoke about women’s heart health at many events around the country, including the first Go Red! For Women luncheon and the AHA national convention.
In 2010, co-founders Michelle Javian and Yuki Kotani approached me about becoming a founding member of Harboring Hearts, a non-profit dedicated to providing assistance to heart patients and their families in time of need.
As someone who had been through the adversity of heart disease and had to wait for a transplant, I represented the voice of patients. Serving on Harboring Hearts Board of Directors, I acted as a resource for families and offered advice through a monthly blog.
I dedicated myself to promoting organ donation in the transplant field. I do this on behalf of the friends I made in the hospital, many of whom who died because of the critical organ shortage, and to honor 18-year-old Shannon, whose heart beat keeps me alive today.
Years after high school, I survived two bouts of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes. With this experience came more opportunity.
I became the youngest board member of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s New Jersey Chapter, speaking and lobbying for research funding, presenting at conferences to give hope to patients and caregivers, and writing a blog to connect with others around the country.
My experiences with adversity have been gifts in many ways. I saw my adversity as a means to help others and share what I’ve learned:
Happiness is a decision.
I often feel like we spend our lives making mental lists of what would allow us to be truly “happy.” In doing so, we spend our lives chasing a fantasy that might never fulfill us. Beauty can be found all around us, and even in the midst of our greatest challenges, we can be thankful for the compassion and generosity of those who lend their support.
Challenges are catalysts.
When we’re put to the test, it can summon a strength we never knew we were capable of. Adversity may push us out of our comfort zone against our will, but in doing so, can enable us to pursue goals and opportunities we might have never been brave enough to consider. It’s our chance to rise above.
We’re not alone.
No matter how “perfect” others’ lives may seem, everyone has been through some form of adversity. Remembering this can help give us perspective and patience during tough situations, and remind us that others may need a shoulder to lean on from time to time.
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