Herald neighbors: Guest column

A heart-felt thank you: 730 days of unending gratitude

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Editor’s Note: On April 20, 2016, East Rockaway resident Taylor Clarke underwent a heart transplant at age 19. As the two-year anniversary of her life-altering procedure draws near, she sent a column to the Herald reflecting on her journey and how thankful she is to be healthy.

Seven hundred and thirty days. Twenty-four months. There have been 1,051,200 minutes that I am alive because of a stranger. A stranger that I will never get to thank. There have been 730 sunrises that I have had the opportunity to see all because of a selfless family somewhere in the country. There have been 24 months of happiness, laughter and joy because of the miracle that is modern medicine.

Two full years of life — what a gift that truly is.

I always considered myself to be a grateful person. I loved to take time and appreciate the world around me. I found myself counting my blessings ever so frequently and I enjoyed spending time with beloved family and friends as a reminder of how wonderful life really can be. Despite my unending gratitude, before my illness, I never really thought about how fragile life actually is.

My illness came out of nowhere. I had lived 19 years on this earth with almost a perfect bill of health. I rarely even caught the common cold and only found myself in a doctor’s office for a routine physical or in the rare situation that I was feeling under the weather. I was 19 and living a normal life for someone my age. I was away at school, attending classes at my dream college, making friends that I knew were beyond special, enjoying my challenging coursework and ceasing every opportunity presented to me.

My dreams were merely wiped away from me in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, I was home undergoing test after test. Forced to withdraw from college, pack up my quaint dorm room and bid farewell to my best friends. “I’ll be back soon,” I said, or “I’ll see you next semester.” I did not imagine the challenging and frightening road that was ahead, but in reality, no one did.

Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be where I am today. I never imagined that I would be at the school I am at today, majoring in what I am, living how I am living. I never imagined that my life would be marked by scars from life-saving operations or “battle wounds” from a near-death experience. I never imagined that I would have a box of over a dozen medications attached to me whenever I leave the house. I never would have imagined that I would be so passionate about an issue that just a little over two years ago, I knew nothing about: organ donation.

Never in a million years did I imagine my life to be what it is today. But would I change anything? The answer has been and always will be a definitive no.

Yes, some days are incredibly difficult. Some days it is hard to look in the mirror and grasp how much my journey has changed my appearance, from my body to even my hair. Five long months in the hospital altered my life in many ways. Ways I am still trying to fix to this day. But those five long months and my two years living post-transplant, have granted me two gifts I will never be able to express my gratitude for: the gift of life and the gift of living.

Because of my donor, I am able to physically wake up each day. I am able to climb the stairs without feeling like my legs will give out at any given second. I am able to walk on the boardwalk and take in the beautiful view of the beach. I am able to ride my bike, run, exercise, be my greatest self. Frankly, I am able to do everything. But most importantly? I am able to live.

If my journey has taught me anything in life, it is to appreciate every single second. It has shown me how important it is to live, to love and to make the best of every day. Life is just too short. My first year post-transplant was the hardest year of my life. It was a cycle of medication adjustment, battling with my suppressed immune system and struggling with the emotional stresses that follow a traumatic life experience. I learned that there are days in which life feels incredibly difficult and it feels as if the entire world is fighting against you. But through my struggles, I learned how to be strong. I learned how to rise up and keep fighting.

The doctors tell me I will never remember the traumatic events that came when I first got sick. That fact is something I am thankful for each day. I consider myself lucky that I am not haunted with the beginning stages of my illness each day, but instead I can choose what I want to think about. Instead of remembering the nights I sat fearful in my hospital room or the post-operation struggles I faced, I choose to remember the good.

Two years later, it still gives me chills to recall the immense support I received from the community, from strangers and from my loved ones. It seems as if the world is constantly flooded with bad news each day, causing selfless and altruistic acts to often go unnoticed. When things feel as if they are becoming too much, I remember the hundreds of cards I received, most from people I had never even met. I remember how the families of my best friends came and decorated my house for Christmas so that my family would not feel too sad. I remember the dozens and dozens of people who made the lengthy drive up to the hospital just to sit with me for a few hours each day. I remember the donations made and the sweet messages sent. I remember the prayers, the events and concerts organized, the social media posts, the blessings and the love. I remember it all. I remember it because it is why I am here today.

Some might say I am alive by a miracle; some will say it was the beauty of transplantation. Others will argue it was incredible doctors and surgeons that never gave up on my case. And some will say it was all the works of a higher power above. I like to believe that I am here today, and continue to live each day to the fullest, because of a combination of all of that and more. I believe I am here today because I never gave up on myself and because no one ever gave up on me.

As the very wise fairy godmother once said, “Even miracles take a little time.” I’m reminded of this each time I feel my perfect and healthy heart beating inside of me.

For more information about organ donation or to sign up to be a donor visit: www.donatelife.net.