My Heart is From Atlanta

What it's like to meet the family who donated the organ that saved your life

By: Allison Sklarew

The author calls the day her donor family wrote to her one of the happiest of her life. Photograph by Benjamin C. Tankersley

At the end of every year, my family sends holiday cards with updates on our news, pictures of vacations, and the latest on my health. Eleven years ago, when I was four, I got a new heart.

Ever since, we’ve also sent a card to my donor family. We’ve always addressed it care of the hospital where the transplant took place—you’re not allowed to know anything about the family unless they give permission or contact you. They never replied. Then in 2008, I attended the U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh. The event is an Olympics-style competition for living donors, donor families, and transplant recipients. I was a member of Team Maryland, running in the 5K race.

While there, I talked to a man who’d contacted the person who received his daughter’s heart. He told me he asked questions like “What’s your favorite food and your favorite animal?” At first that seemed silly, but I could see how deeply he cared about the well-being of his daughter’s organ. The simplest responses made him so happy. That inspired me to write to my donor family—this time just from me. I told them about my cat, my parents, my sister. I said I was healthy, loved fashion and cooking, and was doing well in school.

A month later, a letter addressed to me arrived. It was from Atlanta—I didn’t know anyone there. On the front of the card was an orange cat. This looks like my cat, I thought. They must know me. I skimmed the note. One sentence jumped out.

“Your heart is from our son, Joey.”

I ran to my mom and read her every word.

“Joey’s birth date is 8/1/96,” the letter said. “I believe you are very close in age. He has two brothers.” Joey’s mother continued: “I am so glad his heart has been good.” That day—September 9, 2008—was one of the happiest of my life.

Team Maryland’s manager arranged a phone call with my donor family. At first, my mom and dad talked to Joey’s parents, Carolyn and Bill, because I was so nervous. They said their son was four when he died in an accident. I eventually joined in and could tell they were warm and strong people. After the call, I felt like I knew them.

I wrote more letters but didn’t talk to them again until I met Carolyn and her 16-year-old son, Ben, at the 2010 games in Madison, Wisconsin. We’d arranged to meet in a hotel conference room. As my parents and I walked up the stairs, I felt panicked.

There they were—two members of my donor family smiling at me. My throat was dry as I hugged them, then we sat down and exchanged gifts. I gave them a cookbook of family recipes. I have four grandmothers, and each contributed—pasta sauce, vegetable noodle soup, fudge, cranberry chicken. I added my lemon cake everyone loves.

Carolyn and Ben gave me a jewelry box. Inside was a silver bracelet with a heart charm dangling from it. As Carolyn fastened it on my wrist, I noticed she was wearing a similar bracelet with many colorful charms.

We went out to dinner and explored the city. Before they left on August 1, Team Maryland served a cake in honor of Joey’s birthday. Carolyn and I blew out the candles together. He would have been 14.

Since then, I’ve added some charms to my bracelet—a cat and an elephant. Because Joey loved elephants.

Allison Sklarew is a ninth-grader at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac.

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.