Northwestern organ donor drive pushed

Annette “Jo” Giarrante of Evanston had a heart transplant March 11, 2007. She recently encouraged other Northwestern Memorial Hospital heart transplant recipients to register five friends or family members to the organ donor registry.

“Jo has always demonstrated a wonderful giving spirit, continuing to find ways to inspire and support fellow transplant patients,” said Dr. Kim R. Feingold, founder and director of the Cardiac Behavioral Medicine Service at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“Jo’s enthusiasm for life, learning and helping others has inspired me as her doctor and reminded me of the strength and resilience that we are all capable of having,” Feingold said. This is the ninth anniversary of heart transplantation at Northwestern. Hospital officials hope to reach a milestone of 200 heart transplants before autumn.

“When the nurse came in to tell me a donor heart was available,” Giarrante recalled of that 2007 surgery, “I asked for one thing. Take the heart out very gently because it’s served me for some 50 years. Put the new one in with as much gentleness as you took it out.”

Giarrante, a spiritual director/life coach who has lived in Evanston for 14 years, has built a life with her partner Janet Trzaska, whom she plans to marry by fall.

Giarrante is grateful for family support. Her brother is Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante.

The Northwestern Memorial Hospital patient published inspirational cards two years after her heart transplant. “Whispers from the Heart” are available at www.whispersfromtheheart.net. Visit www.northwesternmedicine.org.

Meet Annette “Jo” Giarrante.

Q: Will you share your memories of spring 2007?

A: Well, I had been having some heart issues prior to that. They were treating it with medication. I also had a defibrillator in. I went to see the doctor on Wednesday for a following checkup. He told me that there wasn’t much more they could do with the heart, that it was becoming very jumpy. The blood pressure was jumping all over the place and it was kind of in a chaotic state even with the defibrillator. And my defibrillator starting going off more. So he put me down in emergency and the defibrillator went off about maybe five times. Unless you’ve had a defibrillator in you that goes off in you, you really don’t know what it’s like. It’s not so much painful as it is scary. And you don’t know exact the point it’s going to go out. When it happens, it’s like being kicked by a mule inside out. That’s what it’s like. So it was like my whole body just projects forward.

Q: What are some of the challenges of this journey?

A: They tell you after you have a heart transplant, expect bumps in the road. Those bumps can be anything from dealing with an infection, which is really serious for anybody that’s been transplanted because you’re on immunosuppressant drugs. So they don’t mess around with anything that’s related to an infection, small or large. I really haven’t had any problems. Every now and then, I might have a bump in the road. My medication may get out of sorts and I have to re-tweak it.

Q: What is the new normal?

A: They tell you after the transplant that you have to get used to something and that is that your life is going to change. And how you might have managed your life before may have to change. And so they call it, a new normal. You have to begin to realize that what was normal for you before may not be normal now. So for me, part of my new normal was, I wasn’t going to work in a way that took on any stress. So I went into private practice and I pretty much can manage my schedule any way that I want it.

Q: What is your message to the family of the heart donor?

A: Well, oftentimes when I think about that, I want to cry because whoever the person was, obviously it’s a very bittersweet experience for the family or those connected, friends of this person. So you always know that when you get new life from a donor, in the case of a heart transplant, you know that person died. And so it’s like a bittersweet experience. I, every now and then, talk to my donor. I don’t know who the donor is. I have a feeling it was a man. I have no factual data to back that up. I often feel like my donor’s presence is around me. And I also feel like whoever he or she was, was a brave soul to really donate their organs. And I’m nothing but … I can’t find even a way to show gratitude. I’m just so grateful. I don’t know who that person was but who I sense that person to be is someone I often thank. And my job now is to be a steward of that heart. And to give it as much comfort and peace and do the right things for it because I was given that gift.

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