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Living intentionally with a gifted heart

For Heart Month, heart transplant recipient Kristi Coldwell shares thoughts from her heart about her transplant journey.
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​Kristi and one of her foster dogs

​When she fainted on the ski hill at the age of seven, it finally became obvious that something was not quite right with Kristi Coldwell's heart. The native of Cranbrook had actually been born with a rare and serious heart condition called Ebstein (or Ebstein's) anomaly that affected one of her heart's four valves, but it remained undiagnosed until then.
 Kristi after her first open heart surgery in 1994.

For the next 10 years, Kristi and her mom were in and out of numerous hospitals, travelling between Cranbrook, Calgary, Vancouver, and even the U.S., for tests, procedures and open-heart surgeries. It reached the point where Kristi was dependent on a wheelchair to get around due to her unpredictable heart rhythm and fatigue.

"I was incredibly sick. I had to stop all activities, including school," recalls Kristi. "My mom and I went back to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to see if there was anything more they could do. There, the surgeon sat me down and said that a heart transplant was the only option."

Kristi was just 17 years old.
A new heart and a new chance at life
 Three months later, Kristi received her new heart at SickKids in Toronto. While the wait wasn't long, her recovery was slow, with several setbacks. She had infections, dealt with rejection, and even went into cardiac arrest in the pediatric ICU. But even with uncertainty and anxiety around her future, Kristi and her family were comforted with the hope of a new beginning.

 Kristi holding her old heart, post-transplant in 2000.

At Kristi's health started to improve, she had to figure out how to live with her gifted heart. Kristi remembers thinking how strange it felt to finally have a healthy heart. Prior to her transplant, just climbing a few stairs would send her heart skyrocketing to 200 beats per minutes.

"I remember in those months following the transplant, I couldn't feel my heart," says Kristi. "I was very concerned and mentioned it to my cardiologist. She laughed and said, 'Kristi, that is what it's supposed to feel like. You're not supposed to feel every single beat of your heart.' It was incredibly eye-opening for me."
Embracing life after transplant
Now almost 24 years post-transplant, Kristi appreciates all the small things in her life, like going for a walk or sleeping in her own bed. She loves to garden in her free time and together with her husband, fosters senior rescue dogs. They currently have four.  Kristi says they are the perfect family because every morning they wake up and take their morning medication together.

 Kristi has also found meaningful work through her role of Senior Advisor for Research Advocacy at the Transplant Research Foundation of B.C. (TRF). She bridges the divide between researchers and those with the lived experience of donation or transplant, helping each group understand how they can work together more closely.

 "I really love my job because for someone like me, whose entire life is really founded on research, I know that is where my future lies," Kristi explains. "The future of all transplant recipients and the future of organ transplant medicine is all about research. It gives me hope, and to have a role in it really is an honour, it means a lot to me."
A heart full of gratitude
Despite the challenges and difficulties that come with transplant life, Kristi chooses to address each day with positivity, gratitude and hope. Instead of dwelling on her frustrations, she takes a step back and grounds herself in the present moment. 

"I am in awe at the stranger's heart beating within my chest that keeps me alive. While I know nothing about my donor, I never forget this and I make a conscious effort to be grateful every day." 

This past year, Kristi attended one of BC Transplant's donor medal ceremonies to share her gratitude with donor families. It was emotional, but she says it was an honour to be able to convey her love and admiration for them. 

"I think we are all really interconnected – whether we are recipients, donors, or donor families and we do share a really unique bond that unites us and so even though I don't know my own donor's family, I feel a strong kinship towards other donor families." 
Ultimately, Kristi believes organ donation is all about love and the power of sharing compassion and kindness. It can be as simple as making someone's day a little brighter with a smile or a cup of coffee – a small act can go a long way. 

"I have really learned over the last couple of decades how it's those little things that mean so much to people and they don't take a lot of effort, but we don't always stop and take the time to do such things." Kristi questions, "At the end of the day, why are we here if we can't try to make someone's day a little bit better?" 

"I am still here. I am still alive. I would not have been here if it wasn't for my gifted heart. I would not have enjoyed two decades of life and living if I hadn't received my transplant."

One of those small acts of kindness can be registering as an organ donor. One donor can save up to eight lives. Imagine that impact — register now (

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