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Amy Sherald: 'I learned to fall in love with the idea of death'

Posted at 12:23 PM, Jul 17, 2014

Doctors didn't understand how then-30-year-old Amy Sherald made it to the doctor's office, let alone how just the day before she was running 10 miles, at a pace of 8 minutes and 30 seconds.

"I really had no symptoms when I walked into the cardiologist's office," Sherald, now 40, said.

She was functioning on 18 percent ejection fraction through her heart. Heart transplant surgery is performed on patients with an 18 percent EF score. Doctors found an irregular heart beat that she had her entire life.
She would spend the next 10 years staying awake at night "learning to fall in love with death," she said.

"At least I won't have to pay back Sallie Mae now. She's like my evil stepmom," Sherald told herself. "There are a lot of benefits to death like [no more] taxes."

She was worried that she wouldn't get a heart in time. She was worried that she would die in her sleep. But most of all, she was worried about how she was going to break the news to her mother. Sherald needed a new heart.

RELATED:Wait times on the rise for those in need of organs

At the same time, her brother was dying from a non-smoking related lung cancer in Georgia.

"If I looked back at my life, I was happy with it. I did everything I wanted to do except get married and have kids," Sherald said.

She was placed on a secondary list for a heart transplant. "You have to get a little sicker first before they admit you into the hospital," she said.

That was until she woke in a pool of blood at Rite Aid.

She walked to the convenience store at Lexington and Howard to buy supplies for her art studio.

"My heartbeat started to speed up. I thought it was going to go away because it happened all the time. I had a defibrillator implanted when I was 30. I thought it was just going to go off."

It didn't.

She blacked out from a near fatal arrhythmia.

"When I came to, I was on the floor of the Rite Aid with blood behind my head and the Rite Aid manager yelling at people," Sherald said.

She was admitted to the hospital that November day.

"I realized I had to let everybody know, my family. Even though my brother only had three months to live, this is happening now and we had to put our heads together and figure out how to get through it," Sherald said.

Her time at the hospital was spent with distractions and a wine and cheese party, torn between planning her own death and waiting for someone else to die.

"All your perspective on life changes," Sherald said. "When it rains you're thinking it could happen tonight or it could happen because it's a high travel weekend, or it's Christmas or they call them 'bonus' weekends.' There is kind of this inappropriate humor that gets attached to what's happening. I think it's just a way to deal with it."

Twice doctors came close to securing a heart for Sherald. The second time she believed it so much that she posted a Facebook status update with the happy news.

"And then they came back and said 'we're not going to take it,'" Sherald said. "The third was the charm. The third one came on my mother's birthday, 11 days after my brother died. I was just really happy to get to a place where all of us could be together."

The doctors came into her hospital room at 9:30 p.m. The doctor's all but slapped a peanut butter sandwich out of her hand. The surgery was scheduled for the early morning.

The nurses came with her and sanitized her with "the green stuff."

"They roll you down the hallway and you just do the princess wave into surgery," Sherald said. "You go to sleep. You wake up. And it's the most intense feeling I've ever had in my life. … It had been 10 years since I felt my heart beat that way. The first thing I could think about was my donor's family. That's all I could think about too when I was waiting. I was waiting for someone to die who was my brother's age almost."

Some organ donor's opt not to find out more about their donor. But for Sherald, it brought her 10-year odyssey full circle.

"To be able to know my donor's mother, her family, her brother -- they gave a gift but to be that gift and to live your life in a way that honors that gift where you truly are a living legacy for that person," Sherald said.  That person who was selfless enough to think about another person and donate an organ … it's a huge deal and there's nothing that replaces giving a person a life."

RELATED: Organ recipients reflect on spiritual connection with donors

Sherald's appetite for life was insatiable after shaking death's hand.

"I turned 40 and a lot of things change when you're 40 too," Sherald said. "You learn how to say no. You learn how to be selfish, but in a good way. … Something about going through a transplant makes you more emotional. It makes you more sensitive, like I can't watch violent movies anymore. It made me want to give of myself even more."

A year and a half out, she still hasn't digested the whole of her experience.

"When I got out of the hospital, I was like this is the plan. I'm going to go to the global transplant Olympics… Then I'm going to get married, so I got on and I was going to find a man," Sherald said. "I started taking viola lessons and then I wanted to learn three different languages. I want to be a wine sommelier. You're just kind of crazy for a year. I was going to every party. I was going to every art fair."

After a year and a half out, she's starting to get to a normal pace.

"I still shopped a lot, like I said to myself 'I almost died, so I'm going to get these sneakers," Sherald said.
The next step she said was to foster a relationship with her donor's family.

"What kind of person was she? What kind of things did she like. Who did she love? I romantically believe in muscle memory, heart memory," Sherald said. "It means a lot for me to be able to just kind of get to know her family a little bit. When I met her father he made me feel her heart beat. … I still call it Kristen's heart."

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