Jacob Kilby sat anxiously in his chair. Like other guests at the outdoor wedding, he was eager to see the bride, a woman he had never actually met, begin her momentous walk down the aisle lined with flowers. It would be a life-changing moment for her — and for him.
“I was so excited,” Kilby said.
Beneath a beautiful backdrop of Alaskan mountains, Kelly and Becky Turney became man and wife. During the vows, Kelly paused to make an announcement. All eyes soon turned toward Kilby, who had stood up and was now walking down the aisle toward the couple.
“Kelly let Becky know that her (late-son from a previous marriage) was there in spirit because the recipient of his heart was standing in front of her. I was her wedding present,” Kilby said. “Everyone clapped and cried. I had the honor of standing through the rest of the ceremony as a groomsman. It was surreal.”
Kilby was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a complex and rare heart defect that leaves part of the organ critically underdeveloped. He had a heart transplant at age 2, but at age 20, he suffered a heart attack and required another transplant. Kilby was on the wait list for months when he finally received the organ that would save his life.
The transplant happened two years ago, and the heart that now beats in Kilby’s chest once belonged to Becky’s 19-year-old son, Tristan Green.
“He was a giving person that always put other people before himself,” said Kilby, who spent days following the wedding ceremony with Green’s friends and family, learning more about his donor. “I didn’t get to meet the family of my first donor so this was super cool and something I never thought would happen. It was very emotional.”
Becky had previously communicated with Kilby, but only through messages online and a phone call on her birthday. It was Kelly, the groom, who planned the surprise face-to-face meeting on their wedding day. It was then, after tears and embraces, that Becky picked up a stethoscope and heard her son’s heartbeat again.
“We instantly bonded and will forever be part of each other’s lives,” said Kilby, recalling the moment. He now talks to the Turneys almost every day.
After the Turney’s wedding photographer posted photos online, the story went viral and received national attention. Kilby is a UC San Diego Health patient and
Victor Pretorius, MBChB, cardiothoracic surgeon, performed his heart transplant.
“Jacob’s heart attack closed down vessels and arteries and the only treatment option was a transplant. He tolerated the procedure very well and his new heart worked beautifully right from the start,” said Pretorius. “Because he was in the hospital for such a long time, we all got to know him. He was always in good spirits with a great personality. Everybody loved him.”
Pretorius said Kilby can expect to get another 20 years or so with his new heart.
UC San Diego Health performed 32 heart transplants in 2016 and the program continues to grow. Surgeons at Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center at UC San Diego Health treat the most complex cases with a focus on comprehensive care and a multidisciplinary approach.
“We truly have a passion for what we do and a compassion for all our patients,” said Pretorius.
Although it’s not common for organ recipients to meet the families of their donors, it has happened twice recently for UC San Diego Health patients. “I think of Jacob as the male version of Amanda,” said Pretorius.
Amanda Gabaldon received a heart transplant at UC San Diego Health nearly three years ago after being diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare and life-threatening disorder in which a woman develops heart disease within the final month of pregnancy or within five months post-delivery.
After a long journey of doctor appointments, cardiac devices, a heart transplant and a slow recovery, Gabaldon met the family whose loved one gave her the opportunity to watch her daughter grow up.
“As I saw my donor’s sister walk into the coffee shop, I froze. I just stared at her for what felt like several minutes. Then, we hugged, and I didn’t want to let go,” recalled Gabaldon.
Gabaldon met her donor’s entire family. She describes the day as one full of nerves and happiness. “I had prepared for this day for years, but once you see the daughter of the woman whose heart is in you, the mirror interviews I had practiced were quickly forgotten.”
Not surprisingly, everybody had questions. “I learned just how amazing Terri, my donor, was and how accepting her family is. I found peace that day,” said Gabaldon. Like Becky, Terri’s family members also took turns listening to her transplanted heart beat. “I was merely a vessel in that moment.”
Pretorius hopes both Kilby and Gabaldon’s stories shine a light on the importance of organ donations.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there are more than 117,000 men, women and children on the national transplant wait list. Each day, 22 people on the list die.
There are approximately 30 UC San Diego Health patients on the wait list for a heart.
“Unfortunately, not all of them will receive a new heart because there just aren’t enough available,” said Pretorius. “Becoming a donor is as easy as talking to your family and checking a box at the DMV. It can save multiple lives.”
Gabaldon uses her experience to educate communities about women’s heart health and to inspire others to become potential organ donors.
“I made my donor’s family a promise: I will always live my best life for Terri, the woman who continues to help me make a difference in this world,” said Gabaldon.
Kilby has made it his mission to share his story and also raise awareness of organ donation. He even received a scholarship to travel to Washington DC to speak in front of Congress on the topic. “I am forever grateful for Tristan’s donation. I never imagined what an incredible experience I would have through that generous act.”
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