…and Kentucky Fried Chicken. My daughter said I even walked like a man
By CLAIRE SYLVIA
London Daily Mail
Last updated at 00:54am on 9th April 2008
Yesterday, the Mail told the extraordinary story of how a heart transplant recipient in America committed suicide – just like the man whose heart he had received 12 years previously. In another extraordinary twist, it emerged that the recipient had also married the donor’s former wife.
So can elements of a person’s character – or even their soul – be transplanted along with a heart?
One woman who believes this to be the case is CLAIRE SYLVIA, a divorced mother of one.
She was 47 and dying from a disease called primary pulmonary hypertension when, in 1988, she had a pioneering heartlung transplant in America.
She was given the organs of an 18-year-old boy who had been killed in a motorcycle accident near his home in Maine.
Claire, a former professional dancer, then made an astonishing discovery: she seemed to be acquiring the characteristics, and cravings, of the donor.
Here, in an extract from her book A Change Of Heart, Claire tells her remarkable story…
During my final lucid moments before my heart-lung transplant, I was told that a medical team would soon be leaving to “harvest” the organs that would save my life.
My surgeon, Mr John Baldwin, would remain with me, ready to begin the operation as soon as he was notified that the donor’s heart and lungs had been removed. But by this time I was far too groggy to focus on these details, which was probably just as well.
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Claire Sylvia believed she was acquiring some of the characteristics of her donor
Eventually, Mr Baldwin said to me: “We’re going to put you under now, Claire.
“I have to remind you that it is always possible that something could go wrong, and the organs don’t arrive in good condition.
“This sometimes happens with the lungs, which are very fragile. They could be damaged during transit. Sometimes, at the last minute, things don’t work out.” I looked up at him and said: “That’s OK. Do what you have to. It’s in God’s hands now.” After that, I don’t remember anything until slowly becoming aware of a buzz of voices calling my name: “Claire, wake up. It’s over.” I awakened gently, feeling no bodily or physical sensation – nothing but pure consciousness and a cacophony of voices.
I couldn’t speak, but managed to wiggle my fingers.
Someone brought me a pen and paper, and I scribbled my question: Did I get them? “Oh yes,” the voice said. “Everything’s fine.”
Then I lapsed back into unconsciousness.
Later, after my initial recovery from the operation, I began to think of more questions.
How long would this new heart keep beating? How long would these new lungs keep breathing? Would I reject my new organs?
I envisioned the new heart breaking free of its stitches and popping right out of my body.
I wondered whether Mr Baldwin had sewn it in right.
I felt it was beating deeper in my chest than my old heart had. It felt different.
When I asked the surgeon, he explained that he’d had to position my new heart farther back than the old one, to fit it in.
It was nice to know that I still had some connection to reality.
With all my fears, though, I was just grateful to be alive.
I was also deeply thankful that a family I’d never met had made it possible for me to by-pass death and rejoin the world.
It was a humbling thought, and I wanted to be worthy of their amazing gift.
When I told Gail Eddy – the transplant programme co-ordinator – how I felt, she suggested writing to the donor’s family to express my gratitude.
While I couldn’t know their identity or give them my name, I knew my donor was an 18-year-old boy who had been killed in a motorcycle accident.
Because I was the first person in the state to have such an operation, there was a lot of publicity, and two reporters came to the hospital to interview me.
One asked: “Now that you’ve had this miracle, what do you want more than anything else?” “Actually,” I replied, “I’m dying for a beer right now.” I was mortified that I had given such a flippant answer, and also surprised.
I didn’t even like beer. But the craving I felt was specifically for the taste of beer.
Donor: Claire Sylvia received a heart transplant from teenager Tim Lamirande
For some bizarre reason, I was convinced that nothing else in the world could quench my thirst.
That evening, an odd notion occurred to me: maybe the donor of my new organs, this young man from Maine, had been a beer drinker.
Was it possible that my new heart had reached me with its own set of tastes and preferences? It was a fascinating idea. During those early days, I had no idea that I would look back on this curious comment as the first of many mysteries after the transplant.
Or that, in the months ahead, I would sometimes wonder who was choreographing changes in my preferences and personality. Was it me, or was it my heart?
On the fifth day, though my body was doing fine, I fell into a profound despair.
Part of what I was experiencing was a post-operative depression, but I was also going through the early stages of an identity crisis. I mentioned my feelings to Mr Baldwin, but he told me not even to think about it and “just get on with my life”.
A month later, I left the hospital and moved into a medical halfway house a few miles away.
Now that I could eat like a normal person, I found, bizarrely, I’d developed a sudden fondness for certain foods I hadn’t liked before: Snickers bars, green peppers, Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaway. As time went on, a strange question crept into my mind. Although I hadn’t thought much about my donor, I was acutely aware that I was living with a man’s heart – and I wondered whether it was conceivable that this male heart might affect me sexually.
Until the transplant, I had spent most of my adult life either in a relationship with a man or hoping to be in one.
But after the operation, while I still felt attracted to men, I didn’t feel that same need to have a boyfriend.
I was freer and more independent than before – as if I had taken on a more masculine outlook.
My personality was changing, too, and becoming more masculine.
I was more aggressive and assertive than I used to be, and more confident as well.
I felt tougher, fitter and I stopped getting colds. Even my walk became more manly. “Why are you walking like that?” my teenage daughter Amara asked.
“You’re lumbering – like a musclebound football player.” This new masculine energy wasn’t limited to my walk. I felt a new power that I associated with strength and vibrancy.
A certain feminine tentativeness had fallen away. My sexual preferences didn’t change in an overt way -I remained a confirmed heterosexual – but something had shifted deep within me.
And I could tell that others sensed it, too. I became friendly with a blonde woman I met at a conference.
We spent time together and, when the conference was finished, I invited her to stay for a few days.
It was innocent on my part, or so I thought, but as soon as we were alone she made it clear that she was interested in a sexual relationship.
I declined her invitation, but her surprise at my lack of interest made me wonder what kind of signals I had been sending out without realising it. Around this time, I also had the most unforgettable dream of my life.
In it, I was in a grassy outdoor place, it was summer, and I was with a tall, thin young man with sandy-coloured hair.
His name was Tim – possibly Tim Leighton, but I’m not sure.
I thought of him as Tim L. We seemed to be good friends.
As I walked away from him, I felt that something remained unfinished between us. I returned to say goodbye and we kissed.
I seemed to inhale him into me in the deepest breath I had ever taken.
I felt like Tim and I would be together for ever. When the dream was over, something had changed.
I woke up knowing that Tim L was my donor and that some parts of his spirit and personality were now within me.
I wanted to check this information, but the transplant programme observed a code of strict confidentiality.
I called Gail Eddy, the transplant co-ordinator.
Although she couldn’t tell me who my donor was, I hoped she could confirm the name Tim L.
When I asked Gail, there was a momentary pause.
“I’m not supposed to discuss this with you,” she finally replied.
“Let it go. You’re opening a can of worms.” I was disappointed, but I respected Gail’s judgment and assured her that I’d drop the subject.
The subject, however, refused to drop me. Some months later, while out at the theatre, I met Fred, a rather handsome guy from Florida.
We talked about my transplant and about the donor. I wasn’t sure if Fred was genuinely interested in my operation or if he was chatting me up, but there was something about him I liked and I gave him my phone number.
Fred called the next morning and was eager to meet.
He said he’d been moved by my story and – bizarrely – had had a dream in which he saw my donor’s obituary.
Together, he and I decided to go to Boston (the nearest city to the accident) and search the newspapers for my donor’s obituary.
Fred was already there when I arrived, scrolling through the newspaper for the week of my transplant.
We soon found the item we were searching for – an obituary for an 18-year-old who had died in a motorcycle accident.
His name was Timothy Lamirande. My dream about “Tim” was true after all.
I felt a weakness in my knees and collapsed into a chair.
The clipping mentioned five sisters and two brothers.
The family of my heart were right here on a piece of paper. Until this moment, in a strange way I hadn’t been 100 per cent certain that the transplant had even happened.
The process had been so otherworldly that it was easier to view it as a miracle.
But, suddenly, I knew the donor was real and that he had a family.
There was the proof: a name, an address, a town.
A few days later, I met Gail Eddy and told her what had happened.
I asked her if she thought it was possible that Tim’s name was spoken by one of the doctors during my surgery and that it somehow permeated my unconscious.
“I was wondering the same thing,” said Gail.
“But the doctors are never aware of the donor’s name.
Besides, Mr Baldwin works in near silence: not a word is spoken.”
Almost nine months later, I had another dream about “Tim”.
I felt he was doing everything but send me directions to his parents’ house, so I decided to contact his family.
I wrote to them and they agreed to me visiting them.
I drove to Milford in the state of Maine with a close friend.
We waited in a car park where Tim’s father would meet us.
As a large brown car drove slowly into view, my stomach tightened.
Mr Lamirande was smaller than I expected and greeted us with a simple “Hello” – not the profound moment I was expecting.
We followed him to the house.
Tim’s parents lived in a world of freshly-mown lawns and large clapboard houses.
I was incredibly nervous, and surprised to see three of Tim’s sisters there to greet me, too.
So there I was, with Tim’s heart inside me, sitting on Tim’s couch next to Tim’s mother, and we were talking about the weather.
We exchanged small talk before being joined by Annie, a fourth sister, who was closest in age to Tim.
Leaning against the mantelpiece, she looked me in the eye and said: “So tell us how you found us.”
The only thing which interrupted my story were the exclamations of amazement. When I’d finished, many eyes were misted over with tears. “None of the other people who received his organs have been in touch with us,” Tim’s sister Carla said.
I learned that in addition to his heart and lungs, the family had donated Tim’s corneas, kidneys and liver.
Mrs Lamirande – June, as she had asked me to call her – went to another room and returned with a framed photograph.
Sitting back on the couch, she turned the picture so I could see it.
Tim wore glasses, although I hadn’t seen him that way in my dreams.
In this photo, he looked about 14.
He was dressed in formal clothes, standing beside a priest.
But even with the glasses, I could see the sparkle in his eyes. June started to say something about Tim when she suddenly choked up.
Now the tears flowed. I felt a bond between us like nothing I had ever known. But I couldn’t quite comprehend this: me holding Tim’s picture in my hands and his heart in my chest.
I paused to take a breath and Tim’s lungs filled with air.