Story and Photography by Jadrian Klinger
In a hospital room at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Lauren Keeney and her family and friends played Apples to Apples to pass the time – a laugh-inducing card game where players try to match red noun cards with a single green adjective card to come up with apt but often silly comparisons. For example, a green card might read “Broken,” and the matching red card would say “Heart.” It’s not a game of any authentic strategy or competition, but of shared humor, which was exactly what was needed on this late autumn day in 2006.
The game served as a distraction to the very real game of waiting that weighed on all in Keeney’s family-and-friends-filled hospital room. Her life, a mere 19 years old, was at stake, but the card of hope had been dealt to her in the form of a life-saving gift given by an anonymous donor who would never again play any game. The life of someone whom she never knew nor would ever meet ended not long before this game of Apples to Apples, and her own would continue because of it.
She and her loved ones waited, knowing full well that these moments could be their last together, and a game of laughter was chosen to pass the hopeful, heavy, bittersweet time. The green adjective card said “Life-saving,” and Keeney was holding the red noun card that declared “Organ Donation.”
From an early age, Keeney suffered from a broken heart. Not the figurative kind though, but rather the kind identified by a hard-to-pronounce medical name. For her, it was dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged and cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body. The result is eventual heart and organ failure.
“They found out when I was in sixth grade that I had a heart problem,” explains the 25-year-old Mechanicsburg resident, “and they thought that one day I would need a heart transplant, not knowing that it would be when I was 19. It was idiopathic, which means they didn’t know if I was born with it or if I may have gotten a virus when I was younger that caused it.”
In her younger years, her heart condition was regulated with medications, a healthy diet and plenty of doctor visits. By her senior year of high school, however, her heart had weakened so much so that she required a defibrillator.
“The doctors were worried my heart would stop altogether,” she recalls. “It was so bad that I could barely walk a block. I would become so tired and out of breath. I even went into heart failure a few times. At the time, I was 19, and I wanted to go out with my friends and have fun, but it was difficult. I remember one time I went out with friends to Arby’s thinking I would get a sandwich, but I went into heart failure because it was too much salt. …I went to senior prom, and my boyfriend at the time – who is now my husband – and I had a healthy low-sodium meal at my house, instead of going out to a restaurant like everyone else. We shared a few dances, but mostly we just watched everyone else dance because I couldn’t dance for long periods of time.”
Keeney received her defibrillator in May of 2006. “It kept me going for a few months,” she remembers. “I had a couple instances of congestive heart failure, where my lungs filled with fluid, and that’s when we knew it was getting worse.”
In November of that same year, Keeney was hospitalized. “They thought I had a stomach bug, and I got really dehydrated. It turned out that my heart was no longer pumping blood to my stomach and digestive organs. My organs were starting to slowly shut down.”
Around Thanksgiving, Keeney found her name on the heart-transplant list. “I was put in as a No. 1 status, which meant I was highest on the list because my condition was so far progressed. Prior to this, I was in the hospital for a week-long series of tests to make sure the rest of my organs were strong enough to endure such a serious surgery.”
The doctors checked everything – physically and mentally – to make sure she could survive the procedure of heart transplantation. In addition to her being healthy in every other way aside from her heart, the donor heart also had to be a perfect match. In fact everything had to be perfect – the same blood type, an almost perfect tissue match, the appropriate size for her body, location and, most importantly, timing.
Keeney’s life relied on receiving a new heart, and time was running out for her. At any age, though especially at 19, facing the prospect of your own mortality is a terrible pill to swallow. At the time, she admits to avoiding the thought of her life being cut short, but the real possibility of it was certainly not far from her loved ones’ thoughts.
“I know it was always in my parents’ and family’s mind,” Keeney says. “Through the whole thing, I didn’t really think about it. When the doctors told me that I was going to have a heart transplant, and they started to explain all the details of it, I told them that I didn’t want to know – I just wanted them to do it. Being young, it didn’t phase me as much as if I were older at the time. Of course, I understood the magnitude and the fact that someone would have to lose a life for me to continue life. And that’s the hardest thing to comprehend and deal with. But the actual procedure, knowing it would eventually have to be done, it wasn’t a huge thing for me because I was young. …Sure, I thought about the fact that maybe I’d never get married or never graduate, but I’m a fighter, and I felt like I’d get through it.”
Keeney’s name sat near the top of the transplant list while her condition worsened.
And then, hope arrived.
“Some people can wait months and even years for an organ,” she says. “I was so sick, and I was so lucky, that after only about a week of being on the list, I received the transplant. I only waited eight days, which was a good thing because not only was I going into congestive heart failure again, but also every time I would sleep on my left side, that little bit of pressure against my chest, actually stopped my heart. They had to keep rolling me over. At that point, it was pretty bad.”
Keeney’s new heart was on its way to her, and she and her family and her friends sat in her hospital room waiting, playing Apples to Apples to pass the time.
“I had probably 25 people in my room, which wasn’t allowed, but we did it anyway,” she says. “We were just playing games and waiting and praying – people there were crying. It was bittersweet, though, because we all knew someone had just passed, knowing that their family was mourning their loss, and we were so happy because I was getting a new heart. It’s a bittersweet thing – you kind of feel guilty for being happy to receive this gift of life.”
The waiting finally ended, and Keeney was whisked off to surgery. She was not in the clear by any stretch because the procedure was difficult and risky – a hundred things could go wrong.
In the face of it all, right up until the final moments before her heart would be removed and then be replaced with another, Keeney remained strong.
“All I kept thinking was that I’m not afraid of dying,” she remembers. “If I did, it was meant to be, and then my organs – with the exception of my heart – would go to someone else so that they could live. My family was all crying and so worried. When the doctors came and told me it was time, and everyone was giving me hugs and kisses, I didn’t cry – I was just ready to do it. It was a very surreal moment. I kept on smiling, and I began laughing. I was ready to go, and I was ready to get out of there and live my life, to get better finally. I was ready, in my mind, to go or get better. No one else was fine with that, but I was.”
On December 1, 2006, Lauren Keeney’s new strong heart beat inside her chest.
The surgery was a success.
“They woke me up only a few hours after the surgery,” she recounts. “I was on oxygen and connected to so many tubes. I remember waking up, and my mom and dad were there. The first thing I did was give a thumbs up because I couldn’t talk. I told them that I wanted to take the breathing tube out. They didn’t want to, but the doctor said that if I could communicate like I was, then it could come out. So they took it out. And then I wanted the catheter out after a few hours. They told me that I would have to get up and go to the bathroom then. After probably six or seven hours after the surgery, I got up and went to the bathroom. And before I knew it, I was out of the hospital in seven days. It was one of the fastest turnarounds. I walked and did stairs before they wanted me to. They think it was because I was so young, so I bounced back very fast.”
Keeney noticed a difference right away – her new heart pumped harder and beat stronger than her old one ever did. “Almost right away, I was like, ‘What is that?’ I thought something was wrong because I wasn’t used to hearing my heart beat. I could actually hear and feel it beating, which I don’t remember ever feeling. I was so pale before, but almost immediately, all of my freckles started to show.”
As strong and as much of a fighter as Keeney was throughout the procedure, she gives credit to the miracles of modern medicine and all of the doctors and nurses that were there for her at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “It’s pretty amazing. Fifty years ago, this would never have happened. I would have died in the hospital, and that would have been it. …The whole transplant team was so amazing. I could name so many people who got me through. But Dr. [Walter] Pae, he was the one who did the transplant procedure.”
She also says that she would have been lost without the support of her mother, Cheryl; her father, Dave; her younger brother, Corey; her then-boyfriend and now husband, Peter Watson; and all of her friends.
“My mom stayed in the hospital with me every single night that I was there, which isn’t allowed, but she didn’t leave me. My dad kept up a full-time job and still managed to be there all of the time. My brother, being two years younger than me, carried my potty chair up and down the stairs and helped me around the house – not something a 17-year-old really wants to do, but he did it. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Most of all, however, Keeney’s gratitude for her new heart and her second chance at life resides with her nameless donor, whose own time ended as hers continued – a cold fact that never ventures far from her thoughts. “I definitely think about it all of the time,” she says. “If my donor hadn’t had said they wanted to be a donor, I wouldn’t be here. Every year, my family and I put roses in front of my church on December 1 in honor of my donor and his family. I’m so grateful to be here today because of his decision to become an organ donor. His heart beats in my chest.”
Keeney knows very little about her donor.
“I know the heart came from New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is pretty rare because hearts don’t usually come from there because they’re in such need there. I do know that it was a male between the ages of 20 and 30, and it was a motorcycle accident. I’ve written two letters to the donor’s family through the Gift of Life. Neither time did I receive a response. So, every couple years, I write another letter about how grateful I am for their gift. I just hope someone is reading it on the other end.”
Keeney owes her life to the fact that someone she never knew decided to become an organ donor. And when asked about what she would say to someone who might be undecided about his or her organ status, she brings up her grandfather.
“My grandfather was never an organ donor because he was afraid that he’d end up in the hospital, and they’d give up on saving his life so that they could have his organs for someone else, that they’d not try hard enough. I feel like that is a lot of people’s fear, that the hospital is not going to do everything they can to save you because they want to give your organs to someone else. But after my experience, he saw it firsthand that none of that is true. So, not long after my transplant, my grandfather became an organ donor. Even I am an organ donor. In fact, I am donating my entire body to science after I’m dead.”
Now nearly seven years removed from her transplant, Keeney is married, owns her own home, works 40 hours a week and even has a part-time job. She tries to live her life to the fullest, enjoying the time she was given.
“I never complain. I feel like there is always someone out there worse off than you. Even when I was at my sickest, I was thinking of others who were worse off. There’s no reason to complain. I have to be the best I can – I’m alive now because of my donor. So I’m not going to waste a moment.”