Heart Transplant Recipient Urges Family, Friends to Join Organ Donor Lists

Northwestern Medicine
Organ Donation and Transplantation June 20, 2014
Jo and her partner Janet toastJo Giarrante and her partner Janet toast to the gift of lifeAdding Donors, Saving Lives Campaign Asks Recipients to Add Five Donors to Registry

CHICAGO, IL – Seven years after receiving a heart transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Annette “Jo” Giarrante is challenging fellow heart transplant recipients to repay the gift of organ donation by encouraging at least five family members or friends to register as organ donors by September 1.

Called “Adding Donors, Saving Lives,” Giarrante is working with fellow heart transplant recipients and physicians at Northwestern Medicine® to raise awareness of the need for organ donations. Started in a monthly Northwestern support group for heart transplant candidates and recipients, it’s a grassroots campaign that is not about raising money but about saving lives.

“One of the things that is common among transplant recipients is you have such an attitude of gratitude,” said Giarrante, an Evanston resident. “You get a second chance at life but you never get to see the person who gave it to you. There’s a sense inside us that we have such grateful hearts but we can’t express it enough to all the people we want to express it to.” 
Giarrante’s heart issues started in 2005. First treated with a pacemaker and then a defibrillator, she was eventually diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis, a rare type of heart inflammation whose cause is not known. The condition is so deadly that most people with the condition die before it is diagnosed. After her diagnosis, she was immediately placed on the top of the heart transplant recipient list.

“I just had a sense that I would be okay,” Giarrante said of her time waiting for a new heart, which she received on March 11, 2007. “When the nurse came in to tell me a donor heart was available, 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, 61, described her recovery as “a long road back” that was aided greatly by a monthly support group facilitated in part by Kim Feingold, PhD, founder and director of the Cardiac Behavioral Medicine Program at Northwestern’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. The support group is for heart transplant candidates and recipients as well as those on VADs, or ventricular assisted devices that electronically pump a patient’s heart. Family members, friends and other caregivers are also welcome to attend the free psychoeducational meetings, which start with a speaker and conclude with open discussion.

“The group celebrates milestones and raises questions together,” said Feingold, who is also an assistant professor in cardiac surgery and psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Following a recent talk about the need for organ donors nationally, and particularly in Illinois, Jo sparked a discussion about how heart transplant recipients could help. In that moment, ‘Adding Donors, Saving Lives’ was born.”

Along with leadership in Bluhm’s Center for Heart Failure, Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Assistance, Giarrante sent a letter to more than 100 recipients of heart transplants at Northwestern Memorial. After signing up with Gift of Hope* in Illinois or similar organizations in their home states, Giarrante hopes they will report back to Bluhm on how many donors responded to the campaign.

“I want people to have the opportunity to have a second chance at life like we did,” she said. “I think we want that to happen, to raise awareness and add donors.”

Learn more about joining Illinois’ First Person Consent Organ/Tissue Donor Registry.
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