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Graduate research assistant gets to the heart of organ donation

A successful heart transplant recipient for 13 years, UB doctoral student Aisha O'Mally's dissertation will focus on how heart recipients communicate with their transplant teams. Photo: Douglas Levere  

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published April 11, 2017

“I realized working to promote organ donation — giving others a second chance — was what I wanted to do.”
Aisha O'Mally, UB doctoral student and heart transplant recipient

It was 1 a.m., and Aisha O’Mally had just turned off the TV in her room in Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital when four nurses walked in.

“I had been in the hospital for nearly four months. It was Feb. 9, 2004,” O’Mally recalls. “They told me, ‘We don’t want you to get too excited, but we may have a heart match for you.’”   

It was hard not to get excited.

Now an Arthur A. Schomburg Fellow and graduate research assistant in UB’s Department of Communication, O’Mally had been on the national heart transplant list for more than six months. The wait can be an emotional roller coaster: She knew a potential organ match often ends up falling through.

This time would be different. Preparations continued, until her nurses received word the heart was in the hospital.

“My parents and brother had arrived very shortly after they got the call about the heart,” she says. “We were excited about the operation.

“But the excitement was tempered a bit when the nurses said it was time to say our goodbyes, and it dawned on us that I might not wake up.”   

O’Mally remembers being wheeled into the operating room and, after talking with the transplant team, “I started counting backwards from 100 and I don’t think I even got out of the 90s before I was out.

“Then my eyes opened and, slowly, I realized I was in the recovery room, connected to medical machines that surrounded my bed. I had a breathing tube in my throat.

“And at that point I thought, OK, we made it: I have a new heart.”

Aisha O’Mally (left) with her mother, Paulette O’Mally, at a summer kick-off event in Rochester for Team Finger Lakes before the team competed in the 2016 Donate Life Transplant Games of America in Cleveland. O’Mally competed as a cyclist as a member of the team comprised of organ transplant recipients, donor families and living donors.

Influencing potential donors

Now 38, O’Mally has been living life as a successful transplant recipient for 13 years.

“In the weeks and months following my transplant I had no major issues with organ rejection, nothing extreme,” she says. “I had received the most important gift of all, the gift of life. I understood that I was getting a second chance.

“Then I started thinking … after going through this traumatic event, what am I supposed to be doing?”

O’Mally remembers going to her doctor’s office one afternoon, picking up a magazine and reading about a girl who had a heart transplant.

“She was 19, working for an organ-procurement organization,” she says. “Many of her thoughts and feelings on receiving a transplant were identical to mine. A heart transplant means a second chance at life — but it starts with donors. Organ donation saved my life.

“I realized working to promote organ donation — giving others a second chance — was what I wanted to do.”

O’Mally knew firsthand there are never enough donors. Long waiting lists are part of the process for almost anyone hoping for a new heart. A resident of the Rochester area, she got in touch with organ-procurement organizations in the region to see if there was anything she could do to help raise awareness. There was.

She quickly learned procurement organizations (OPOs) have a community education component: raising awareness about organ donation and how one decision can change many lives.

Aisha O’Mally was among several transplant recipients who spoke at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s 200 Hearts event last fall, celebrating 200 heart transplants performed at URMC.  

For nearly a dozen years, O’Mally has volunteered for the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, American Heart Association, Buffalo for Unyts — Upstate New York Transplant Service — and the American Medical Association in Rochester.  

Rob Kochik, executive director of the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, points out that April is National Donate Life Month. “Our organization’s motto is, ‘Live life to the fullest … Help others do the same … Pass it on,” Kochik says.

“I can’t think of anyone who exemplifies that better than Aisha.

“In her outreach work with us, she is always focused on honoring her donor,” he says. “Because of that, Aisha symbolizes the success of every recipient.”

O’Mally says procurement organizations have been inviting her to their health fairs, “where I can hand out information and talk to people. Sometimes the OPOs go to community colleges, sometimes high schools, or community organizations. Wherever they go, I go.”

She has discovered that her conversations often go beyond life with a transplanted heart.

“I have also become a motivational speaker,” she says. “Not just for organ donation, but also on facing adversity.

“Potential donors are interested in what happens in a person’s life that leads to a transplant, as well as post-transplant life. And the circumstances are different for each recipient.”

Aisha O’Mally high-fives fellow heart transplant recipient Fred Knewstub at a summer kick-off event in Rochester prior to departing with members of Team Finger Lakes for the 2016 Donate Life Transplant Games of America in Cleveland.

Donate life

O’Mally and Kochik emphasize that National Donate Life Month is a perfect time to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors.

“Any age is the right age to be an organ donor,” Kochik says. “People are never too old to save lives. In fact, organs have been donated and transplanted from donors in their 90s.

“There is a shortage of donors,” he adds. “Statewide, just over 23 percent of the population aged 18 or older in New York are registered organ donors. Nationally, the figure is 54 percent.”

O’Mally says first-person stories of people who are living happy, healthy lives with transplanted organs — particularly hearts — can help influence potential donors.

“They talk to me, ask me questions, and I am able to tell them how organ donation can, literally, give someone a second chance at life. And why health care professionals should embrace organ donation.”

For her dissertation, O’Mally will interview heart recipients about how they communicate with their transplant teams — from a few months after the transplant to many years later.

“As you get older, your body changes, as well as technology. How do you keep up with all of it? Healthy post-transplant patients only see their doctor and transplant team once a year, so I want to get the patient’s perspective on that to hopefully develop better health interventions, leading to a better quality of life for them,” she says.  

“Health communication is an issue that is very close to my heart — pun intended. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”  

To become an organ donor, enroll in the New York State organ donor registry.

Know someone who would make an interesting profile? Forward suggestions to Mike Andrei.

READER COMMENT

Great article about a great UB person! Service above self!

 

Tom Feeley