Transplant Games: Going for the Gold with New Heart
Emily Traylor has a joy for life. The runway trim, always-on-the-go wife, mom and volunteer enthusiastically approaches each day with a radiant smile, a competitive spirit and a new heart.
The 40-year-old Louisiana resident is one of thousands of transplant patients throughout the country experiencing a second chance at life thanks to the generosity of organ donors and their families.
“Life is beautiful and I am so thankful to be here,” Traylor emphasizes with a smile that fades for just a moment as she recognizes another family’s loss. This summer, she will honor her unknown donor as an athlete in the Transplant Games of America, a multi-sport event for transplant recipients and living donors. The highly competitive event showcases the impact of organ, eye and tissue registration, while celebrating life and remembering donors. “Crossing the finish line at the Transplant Games is a feeling of triumph in your renewed life as well as deep gratitude to your donor,” says Traylor who ran track for Team Louisiana in 2018. This year, she enters the swimming competition, an event that has special meaning for her.
“I was swimming backstroke during a race for my high school team when my body just stopped,” she recalls. “I felt dizzy, couldn’t breathe and my heart felt like it was going to beat through my chest. I didn’t think much of it then, but I never swam competitively again. I am not sure why, but I think my body knew something was seriously wrong way before I did.”
Born with Familial Dilated Cardiomyopathy defined as an enlarged and weakened heart, she had no idea that she had the condition. “I am adopted,” she explains, “and my parents did not have my medical background. Fortunately, a biological aunt contacted the adoption agency that women in her family had passed away from cardiomyopathy in their 20s. I was 19 when the agency notified us.”
A cardiologist confirmed what her body had already signaled–yes, she had Familial Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Surrounded by her parents and boyfriend, now her husband, the next blow hit hard–if she survived to celebrate her 23rd birthday she would need a heart transplant. “Hearing that diagnosis was scary,” she confirms. “But for some reason, I knew I was going to be okay.”
With heart-preserving medication, a pacemaker and defibrillator, she made it well past 23. “I loved my career as a Pre-K teacher and got married at 24. We bought our first car, our first house and best of all, adopted a son. Life was great.”
Traylor lights up when she talks about her son, Brayden. “I always wanted to be a mom and honestly, knowing that I would not be able to carry a child or take the chance that I could pass a disorder on to a daughter, was the hardest thing about accepting my heart condition,” she adds. “One of the best days of our lives was finding out we could adopt.”
Brayden’s arrival demonstrated the Traylors' ability to share their love and live a fairly normal life. “As our son grew, his energy grew, too,” Traylor laughs. “I kept up because of the immense love for children and family that keeps women moving. I lived exhausted.”
Traylor thought she was a typical, trying-to-do-it-all young mother until a few years ago when she noticed significant changes. “I was extremely fatigued, pale, losing weight without trying and had a hard time breathing.” she says.
“Something is wrong,” she whispered as she walked into her cardiologist’s office with no appointment, little breath and difficulty speaking. Excessive night sweats, shortness of breath and constant coughing had persisted for too long with no improvement.
“Oh, my God, you look terrible, I’m admitting you,” was her doctor's immediate response.
“I knew I was dying when the diagnosis of end stage heart failure came in, but didn’t tell anyone. I still had a little fight in me and a son to raise,” she says.
While the cardiology team worked on a plan of action, Traylor was discharged just in time to take her son Trick or Treating, as a way to create happy family memories.
Focusing on Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to generate more memory moments, Traylor went through an extensive transplant qualifying process. A few days before Thanksgiving, she was placed on the waiting list. “We celebrated the holidays that night, buying a Christmas tree so I could decorate with my son and the rest of the family even though I didn’t have much energy.”
“On December 12, 2016, I was admitted to wait for my heart,” she continues. “I was terrified, but ready to live, not just survive. I focused on getting a healthy heart and going home. I wanted to see my son grow up.”
A week into the waiting, a potential heart was available. “I called all my loud-Italian family who rushed up to my itty bitty hospital room to celebrate life,” she says. “There were tears because someone else died, but smiles because I was going to live. That is a lot to absorb. Grieving for your donor is an entirely different kind of grief. There are no words to adequately describe the feelings involved.”
The heart was not a viable organ. “How do I tell my son who is sitting beside me on my hospital bed holding my hand, how do I tell my mom, my husband, my entire family who is in my hospital room?” she questioned. “I couldn’t. I just stared at the ceiling for hours. The next day., I regrouped and had a long talk with God. After that, I had such a feeling of peace, and I knew that no matter what happened, I was going to be okay.”
She observed Christmas in the hospital and New Year’s Eve 2017 with an emphatic resolution–“no matter what, it is going to be a great year.” She was right. A new heart was on its way and she entered surgery at 2 a.m. January 6, 2017.
“A successful transplant means you can continue to live and look forward,” she explains. “At the same time, there is grief. My prayers for my donor continue to be, ‘Thank you for saving my life. I am grateful to have such a strong, beating heart and honored to carry on your legacy. God knew that we would work better as a team and I won’t let you down. Thank you for the gift of life and hope.”
Since the transplant, Traylor has been committed to health and fitness and working to raise organ donor awareness. “I’ve done 5Ks. I've walked the mountains of Utah. I'm here to see my son start high school. I'm thankful that I am alive and honoring my hero’s legacy with a healthy body,” she says.