Organ recipients take special joy in Valentine’s Day

Published 10:05 pm Friday, February 13, 2009

Nancy Young’s nightmare began when one of her co-workers asked if Young had burned the top of her head with a curling iron.

Young was working as a legal secretary, with a husband, a son in kindergarten and a house. At work one day, she was seated in a chair when one of her colleagues, standing beside her, noticed a group of three small circles on the crown of her head, and asked if she had burned herself.

“I don’t need a curling iron,” she replied, laughing.

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By the time she got to the doctor the next week, the circles had merged to form one big circle. Her doctor, immediately concerned, sent her for a biopsy.

It wasn’t long before Young was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Evidently, this had been going on in my body for about a year, then just showed up,” Young said during a phone interview Thursday. “These kind of things can happen just so quick.”

She began a chemotherapy regimen, which included the drug adriamycin. Within two years, she was lymphoma-free, but had no idea another health problem was about to strike.

In January of 1992, she suddenly had trouble breathing. She went to the emergency room, and then followed up with her doctor the next day.

This time, the diagnosis was adriamycin-induced cardiomyopathy. The medicine that had helped rid her body of lymphoma had severely damaged her heart, which was functioning at only 30-35 percent capacity.

Young’s doctor was optimistic, believing the condition could be controlled with medication. However, Young was back in the emergency room a few months later, and her heart function already was down to 25 percent. That was when her doctor began to talk about a transplant.

According to LifeNet Health, a non-profit organization that helps arrange procurement and transplant of donor organs, three Virginians die each week waiting for a life-saving organ transplant that doesn’t come in time. Nationwide, the figure is 56 per week – people of all ages, races, religions and walks of life.

Valentine’s Day is also National Donor Day, which encourages people to save lives by documenting their decision to donate their organs when they die. About 100,000 people in the United States (2,500 in Virginia) are currently waiting for an organ donor.

Young was eventually one of the lucky ones. However, she didn’t know if she would make it.

“I ended up having to retire from work,” she said. “I could not function with my family and work both. I was very, very tired all the time.”

By June of 1993, Young was worse.

“I got up late in the morning and went to bed early in the evening,” she said. “I had absolutely no energy at all.”

Young was unable to sweep her kitchen floor all at once. It took her 30 minutes to walk down the street and back. If she went outside with her son, she had to sit in a chair while they played catch.

It was around that time that her doctor sent her to see a transplant coordinator for evaluation.

“I felt like maybe we were jumping the gun here,” she said. “I really felt like he was going to say, ‘You’re not a candidate.’”

Instead, the coordinator did a full evaluation and placed Young on the transplant list immediately. However, he already had some bad news.

“Typically, because I’m a small person, I’m 4’10”, I would need the heart of a child, and typically parents do not donate their children’s organs,” Young said.

Around Thanksgiving of 1993, Young went into the hospital. Her heart function was down to about 10 percent, meaning she likely would have a massive heart attack and die if she left the hospital. Then, a near-miracle happened: She received a donor heart.

“I became very blessed,” she said.

On Jan. 8, 1994, Young had surgery to receive the donor heart of a 14-year-old boy. Though the donation process is anonymous, Young believes she knows the name of her donor through a newspaper article.

More than 15 years later, Young is still alive. Her son, now 22, has served in Iraq with the U.S. Army, and she and her husband anxiously await the arrival of their first grandchild in May. They volunteer with LifeNet Health, telling people about how the selfless decision of a grieving parent saved her life.

“Through the pain of this family of losing their child, they made the decision for their child to continue to live on,” Young said. “Through somebody’s grief and pain, they felt enough love for their child to make this donation and help not only me live, but other people through his tissues as well, and the other organs.”

Young said she always remains aware of the fact that she would never have lived to see her son’s eighth birthday if it weren’t for the donor heart.

“It’s something that we as transplants think about every day,” she said. “We’re always cognizant of the fact that we’re here because somebody else cared, because somebody through their grief made that gift.”

Young still suffers some effects from her ordeal. She struggles with high blood pressure, has to take several medications each day and must be tested periodically to ensure her body is not rejecting the heart. However, she still feels incredibly blessed.

“It is not a cakewalk, but it definitely beats the alternative,” she said. “I’ve been here to watch my son grow up. I’d never be able to see my grandson that’s due in May, but for this gift that I was given.”

Every organ donor has the potential to save seven lives through organ donation, and to enhance the lives of more than 50 people through tissue and eye donation. Almost everyone could be eligible to donate.

Organ donation is encouraged by the world’s major religions, and an open-casket funeral or viewing is still possible if desired. To become an organ, eye and tissue donor in Virginia, document your wish at a DMV office or at

Family permission is no longer needed in Virginia, unless the deceased is a minor or no decision is documented; however, it is still important to talk to your family about your wishes.

For more information about organ donation, visit or