Heart Transplant Recipient Is Given A Second Chance at Life

Written by Kristy Thackeray, Heart Transplant Recipient. 


(Dawn's mom feeling her daughters' heart beat for the first time in 18 years, picture credit: Kristy Thackeray)

The year is 1996 and newspaper headlines are swirling around my home Province of Alberta in Canada centered around one subject. Me.

It all started when I was diagnosed with an extremely rare heart disease at age 14 and my mom and dad started a fight to save my life. They were racing to double my chances of getting a heart transplant in time and were battling to have my name added to a transplant waiting list in the United States.

Restrictive cardiomyopathy is a heart disease that restricts the heart from properly filling with blood. With this disease, the heart muscle becomes fibrous and fatty, eventually causing sudden death. The disease is rare and at the time of my diagnosis, there had only been 10 other known cases in children. Eight of those cases had died within one year of diagnosis. With this information, doctors were unsure how long I had to live with my own heart.

My family rallied around me to fight against barriers from the Alberta government, which prevented me from adding my name on a second transplant waiting list. On May 22, 1996, my parents received the wonderful news that they had won the appeal against the provincial government. We were given permission to seek double listing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. The clinic said yes and allowed me to put my name on its transplant waiting list while still living in my hometown of Medicine Hat, AB. I doubled my chances at living life.

While I was waiting for a heart, family and friends held a benefit auction to provide financial support for me and my family. I was also granted a wish from the Children’s Wish Foundation. My wish was to meet country superstar Reba McEntire. On May 25, 1996, my family and I were headed to meet Reba in Texas. Our flight from Edmonton, AB landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and we, my mom, dad, brother, and I,  retrieved our bags. We stepped out of the airport and the hot Texas air swirled around us. I was so excited. This was going to be the best trip ever! We got in our rental car and headed to meet Reba at her ranch in Denison.

Five minutes into the drive, my wish trip changed drastically. The pager went off. This pager was my lifeline. It was how we would be notified that a potential donor heart had been found. We located the nearest phone booth (in the pre-cell phone age) and my mom called the hospital immediately. Was this a false alarm?

heart had been found. The next few hours were spent hastily arranging to get back to Edmonton. We got a helicopter to take us to a LearJet that had been on standby for me in Denison. Unfortunately, only mom and I could return to Canada because the helicopter only had room for two people. We arrived in Edmonton on May 26, 1996 at 1:00 a.m.

I received my new heart that day, May 26, 1996. Not long after my transplant, I learned that my donor had died in a car accident (May 25, 1996) the day before her 23 birthday. My donor and her fiancé Brad were driving to a baseball game when they were T-boned. I found my donor family through the media reports surrounding the crash. The news reports were very involved with my story and had reported that my heart may have come from Dawn Marie Tremblay. But we needed proof. That proof came when my mom read the OR report, which stated that my heart had come from a 22 year old female in Alberta.

In November of 1996, my mom found the courage to call my donor family. This was the best thing she ever did. My mom and Coral (Dawn’s mom) agreed to keep in touch. As the years passed, my mom updated Coral on how I was doing. In 2001, I found out I was pregnant at 19. Having kids before marriage was not something I was proud of and had even contemplated having an abortion so nobody would ever find out. However, I changed my mind when I found out I was pregnant with twins!

The twins, Shaylynn and McKayla, were born September 30, 2001 and were two months premature. After the twins were born, Coral, Heather (Dawn’s sister), and Maureen (Dawn’s aunt) wanted to meet me and my girls because Dawn had always talked about having twins. Meeting my donor family was amazing. We laughed and cried and quickly became like family with a bond much deeper than blood relatives. I had their daughter's heart beating in my chest and because of her, I was able to be a mom.


I never imagined that only eight years after my transplant – I would be praying for a similar miracle. My daughter Shaylynn had the same rare heart disease - restrictive cardiomyopathy. Shaylynn needed a heart transplant. Her new heart came from Michigan on January 23, 2004. Although we have never met Shaylynn’s donor family, there is not a day that goes by that we don’t think about them.

My life has been significantly impacted by organ donation. Organ donation is compassion at it’s finest. Because of my donor family, I am able to enjoy life. I have been given 20 more years because Dawn Marie Tremblay shared her wish with her family about being an organ and tissue donor.

Shaylynn has been given a new lease on life too; she has been able to celebrate milestones that her donor family missed out on. We are so thankful for the gift of life and hope to continue to advocate for organ and tissue donation.

Did you know that you’re more likely to need a transplant than to be a donor? I always say if you’re willing to receive an organ, you should be willing to donate one. Please sign your donor cards and talk to your family. Without organ and tissue donation, my daughters and I would not be here today.

This May, I will be celebrating 20 years post-heart transplant and I have started to write a book,. I share my discouragements and small victories along with insight into a world that is filled with medical tests, terms and equipment. Amazingly, my donor family has also contributed to the book and share their experiences of losing their daughter and the process of organ donation.

I hope you will continue to share in my journey and get a copy of the book when it is published. It is for anyone who wants to laugh and cry as I share my journey of having a heart transplant; because that is truly when my life began.

If you would like more information about my story please visit my Facebook page. 


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