Every year, approximately 2,200 heart transplants are performed in the United States. Lori, who is waiting for a new heart through Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego; Tim, who is at the top of the transplant list at The Cleveland Clinic; Kristi, a patient at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona and Wanda, who is waiting for a heart at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas are four patients desperately hoping to be among those recipients this year.
• See Wanda's amazing update.
Cardiologist Dr. Jon Kobashigawa, medical director of UCLA's Heart Transplant Program, explains that there are three main ailments that cause people to end up on a heart transplant list: cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease and congenital heart disease.
"The first one is when a virus attacks a heart," Dr. Kobashigawa says. "Now, viruses are very common, many patients have a cold. But don't worry out there, not everyone is going to have cardiomyopathy due to a virus. It's very rare.
"The second cause is arteriosclerosis," he continues. "Basically cholesterol deposits in the arteries of the heart. They cause heart attacks. If they go undetected, you could have destruction of much of the heart, and that can cause heart failure as well.
"The final cause is valvular heart disease," Dr. Kobashigawa adds. "That's when the heart valves either leak too much or are very stiff, and that can lead to end-stage heart disease as well, and a need for heart transplantation."
While there are more people in need of a heart than there are hearts available, improved technology, such as a ventricular assist device (VAD), helps those waiting for an organ live longer until a donor is found. Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Abbas Ardehali, surgical director of UCLA's Heart Transplant Program, uses an animation to explain how a VAD works. While the VAD does help a failing heart work, it is not a replacement for a much-needed new heart.
A Heart Beats On
Nicole, 35, had her life turned upside down in an instant after her husband, Dan, died from a fatal accident in July, 2008.
"I got a call from his boss telling me Dan had been in an accident," Nicole says. "He was working on some scaffolding. All we know is that he fell. I never, ever thought he was going to die. Never. Then, he was brain dead."
In the hospital, a representative from the Organ Donor Network approached Nicole and asked if she would donate Dan's organs. Dan, who was 31, had an organ donor sticker on his driver's license. "I figured that that would be the right thing to do," Nicole says.
The loss endured by Nicole and her 28-month-old daughter, Christina, became another family's blessing.
Harry, 64, suffered from an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure and was having increased difficulty breathing was badly in need of a heart.
"My heart problems first began about 13 years ago," Harry says. "I was always tired. I was short of breath. So I went to the doctors and they put me on a treadmill and I lasted about 30 seconds, and they said, 'Sit down, you have a problem.' The doctors had told me, basically, I had two years to live."
He was saved after being told a heart - Dan's heart - was available to him.
"All I [know] about my donor is that he was a male in excellent physical shape and approximately 26 to 30 years old," Harry says. Since I got the heart, I can do anything I really want to do. And that's the best feeling in the world."
"When I was asked if I would be willing to meet Dan's heart recipient, I was like, 'Absolutely,'" Nicole shares. "I think it would be phenomenal just to hug him and put my hand on his chest and feel Dan's heart beating in his body. He's living on. He is helping this man live a life every single day."
Watch as Nicole meets Harry and his wife, Bridget, for the first time.
"Their gift is so much appreciated," Bridget says. "It will never be forgotten. It's just heroic, what this family did for us."