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Paying it Forward

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Thirty-six-year-old Arthur Joven “AJ” Reyes is a caring and dedicated nurse at Stanford Medical Center. He tends to his patients, providing them with the same devoted medical attention and supportive care that he received at the very same hospital, a little over ten years ago. AJ has a unique perspective as a nurse, knowing exactly how it feels to be in a hospital bed for weeks to even months on end. Everyday he is grateful to be alive, to work at Stanford Medical Center as a registered nurse, and to work with the nurses and doctors who saved his life in 2010.

Five years prior to his lifesaving heart transplant in 2005, AJ was a normal, healthy twenty-year-old. However, shortly after visiting the Philippines with his family, he began experiencing shortness of breath and breathing problems. AJ and his mother went to the doctor for testing, thinking it was just asthma or something minor. Both were shocked to find out that he had a much more serious diagnosis. At twenty-years-old, AJ was diagnosed with congestive heart failure due to a rare viral infection. “I thought it was a death sentence,” said AJ. His mom, who is a nurse, advocated for AJ while they were navigating his health challenges. They immediately started him on medicine to help with his symptoms and prolong the need for any serious surgeries. For a few years, AJ managed his heart failure with medication, but eventually he needed an Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (AICD), a device designed to monitor the heartbeat that can de-

liver an electrical impulse or shock to the heart when it senses a life-threatening change in the heart’s rhythm.

Although the AICD improved AJ’s health, it was not a cure. All along AJ knew there was a possibility he would need a transplant in the future. “I tried not to think about transplant because I was focused on taking care of myself.” In the fall of 2010, AJ’s health continued to decline to the point where he was transferred to Stanford Medical Center’s transplant program to begin the transplant process. “I was so sick of being sick. I knew it was time

and I knew I needed the transplant because I knew I wanted to live,” said AJ. As his health deteriorated, AJ’s doctors decided it was time for an LVAD. The LVAD, an implantable mechanical pump that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of your heart (the ventricles) to the rest of your body, made him healthy enough to be put on the transplant list. “I perked up a little more with the LVAD,” recalled AJ. He was listed for at transplant

on level 1A, which is the highest priority.

Due to the severity of his condition, AJ got the call that there was a heart for him six days after he was listed. “I remember it so clearly. I had just gotten back from dinner

with my sister a few miles away from the hospital and the person on the other end of the phone said, ‘Hey, AJ. I think we have a heart for you if you want it.’” When AJ spoke about this life-defining moment, he broke down. After saying yes to a new heart, he called his family and friends to let them know the good news. He remembers experiencing “can’t-sleep nervous excitement” that evening. AJ was nervous something would go wrong with his heart and the transplant would not be successful.

Still in disbelief that he was receiving a transplant, AJ woke up the next day with his donor on his mind. While he was grateful and excited for his transplant, he could not help but think about who was donating to him. “Of course, I wanted to live, but I also wanted to pray for the family who just lost their loved one,” said AJ. On November 20, 2010, AJ received a heart transplant. Just before surgery, AJ and his family prayed. They prayed that AJ’s surgery would be successful, and they prayed for the donor family that was grieving the loss

of their son. “After surgery, the first thing I remember was how STRONG the heartbeat in my chest was. I had forgotten what it felt like to have strong, healthy heart.” AJ’s recovery went relatively smooth. “I had to adjust to a lot of new medications but thankfully had no com-

plications or rejection,” said AJ. He desperately wanted to know who his donor was; all he knew was it was a man who passed away in a motorcycle accident.

AJ spent months trying to think of what he wanted to say to his donor’s family. “There weren’t enough words to explain how I felt,” said AJ. Then, one day in July of 2011, just a few months after his transplant, AJ received a letter from a woman named Mary. She wrote about her son, Justin. She wrote about his love for motorcycles and what a great dad he was to his son. AJ felt relief after learning about Justin. He could finally put a name to the person who saved his life. AJ immediately emailed Mary back.

“I finally had a person to thank, and it felt incredible to me to share how much this gift meant to me.”

AJ and Mary began writing back and forth to one another and eventually made plans to meet at the Donate Life Run/Walk in September of 2013. “It was overwhelming in the best way,” recalled AJ. He was joined by his parents and siblings when he met his donor’s mom, her daughter and her daughter’s husband. AJ’s mom brought in a stethoscope so Mary could listen to his heart. Mary can remember saying, “I want to listen to that heart,” as the two families gathered around AJ and the two moms listened to his heart together. “It was a bonding experience. It was like we had known the Reyes forever,” said Mary.

Since their first meeting, AJ has visited Mary and her family every year on the anniversary of Justin’s death. They visit Justin’s grave together to celebrate Justin’s life and his lifesaving gift to AJ. Each year, AJ and Mary’s friendship seems to grow deeper. AJ and Mary’s relationship is what AJ cherishes most from his transplant journey. “Losing Justin is a feeling I cannot explain,” said Mary. “Having AJ has been one of the best things for me during the grieving process.” Mary welcomed AJ into her life with open arms and proudly

attended AJ’s graduation from nursing school.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse growing up (it must be “the Filipino” in my blood) like the nurse who helped me in my time of need.” Now as a nurse, AJ is able to share his experience as a recipient with his colleagues and inspire his patients with his first-hand knowledge of transplant and how the journey has impacted his life. In fact, AJ is a nurse at Stanford Medical Center, the same hospital where he received his transplant over ten years ago. “I know exactly how it feels to be in that hospital bed,” said AJ. Eleven years post-transplant, AJ is as healthy as ever.

He honors Justin every day by sharing his radiant smile and grateful heart, inspiring people with his story, taking care of his patients, and continuing to grow his relationship with Mary. AJ’s story is an exceptional example of what it means to honor your donor and celebrate your second chance at life.

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