Lifesavers: Stories of Organ Donation
A Beat Goes On
One day Melissa Simon was a healthy freshman at an Indiana high school; the next she was doubled over in pain. The culprit? A viral infection that weakened her heart.
After six months of bed rest and rehabilitation she was strong enough to return to school. She even danced the lead in her high school ballet. From there she went on to college, started a career in Chicago, and got married. Then, in 2006, the pain and fatigue returned. At 26 Simon couldn't muster the strength even to brush her teeth.
Initially she dismissed her symptoms as flu, but a cardiologist determined her heart was dangerously enlarged and pumping at just 20 percent capacity. Simon had surgery to repair a leaky valve, but a few weeks later fluid surrounded her heart. She didn't grasp how dire her situation was until doctors swarmed her hospital room and began a rare procedure to drain the fluid. When a young resident grabbed her hand and squeezed, Simon realized that he thought she might die. "It was like a scene from ER," she says.
The next day doctors listed her for a transplant, telling her the wait could be three hours or three years. Just two weeks later, in June 2007, Simon got word that a donor heart was on its way. She was overcome with conflicting emotions. "Just as you're facing the best day of your life," she says, "someone else is facing the worst day of hers."
That day unquestionably was the worst of Jon and Linda Coleman's lives: Their youngest child, Chloe, 14, a hip-hop dancer, choir singer, and lacrosse team captain from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, had just died after a tragic accident. Through the blur of shock and grief, the couple agreed to donate their daughter's organs. "Chloe would have wanted to help," says Linda Coleman. "She was a very giving person."
Privacy laws, of course, prevented Simon from knowing any of this. Six months later, in a surge of Christmas-season gratitude, a now-healthy Simon sent a thank-you letter to the Colemans via a donor services agency.
The couple felt an instant connection to the woman they knew only as "Melissa," but whenever they tried to write back they fell apart after a few sentences. Then one day, sweeping behind a couch, Linda Coleman found one of the origami birds that Chloe's classmates had made in her memory. It opened to reveal the hand-printed word open-hearted. On the anniversary of Chloe's death the Colemans sent that letter, enclosing the bird. Simon was so moved that, with the sponsorship of Donate Life Illinois (where she volunteers), she videotaped herself reading a letter to Chloe and urging organ donation.
The link to that video (watch it here) popped up over a year later when Jon Coleman, sitting in an airport, googled "Melissa, heart transplant, Chicago." As he watched the video, tears streamed down his face. That experience led to the Colemans' first phone call to Simon.
When Simon told them she planned to honor Chloe's memory with a 94-flight charity climb in Chicago's John Hancock Center, the Colemans flew to Chicago to cheer her on, bringing a stethoscope so they could listen to Chloe's heart. "Hearing the heartbeat helped us feel that she's not completely gone," says Linda Coleman.
But she'd already sensed that in the elevator to the observation deck a few moments earlier. As she got on, the operator handed her a small piece of folded-up paper left behind by a child. "Strange," she said.
"Not really," Coleman thought, looking at the red origami bird and breaking into a wide smile.