“I call her my heart hero,” Cheryl Olson says of her heart donor.
In 1999, Cheryl contracted a virus that destroyed her heart and left her in urgent need of a heart transplant, which she received later that year. Eight years later, after suffering a minor heart attack, her doctors discovered that she had chronic rejection and told her she would need a second heart to live. That heart came in 2008 from a young woman who she now calls her heart hero.
“She saved my life, so she’s my hero,” Cheryl says. “I hold her very dear, my entire family does, and we do what we can to remember her and share her story.”
Through letters exchanged with her donor’s mother, Cheryl knows her heart hero loved the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas and its main character Jack Skellington. On a recent trip to Disneyland with her family, Cheryl honoured her donor’s memory by meeting Jack Skellington and sharing her story, and that of her donor’s, with him.
“It was my way of doing something that I think she herself would have wanted to do,” Cheryl says. “She did something so incredible for me, so whenever I’m able, I like to honour her memory.”
Cheryl says when she’s making special memories, such as meeting Jack Skellington or zip-lining in the Dominican Republic with her daughter, she hopes there’s a way for her donor to know the good that has come out of her tragic situation and not just for Cheryl and her family but for the others whose lives were saved by her donor.
“Without organ donation – without someone having said yes – I wouldn’t be here,” Cheryl says. “My family would not be complete. My donor not only saved my life, she saved our family.
“She left too soon, but in her leaving she became my hero, our hero,” she adds, seated beside her husband in their family home. Cheryl and her husband of 25 years, Darren, have two children: Lindsay, 22, and Eric, 18.
“We always said, let’s grow old together,” Darren says, remembering past conversations with his wife. “It’s a saying you take for granted. The realization that it might not be came into our lives. So now when I say, ‘Honey, I want to grow old with you,’ there’s real significant meaning behind that.”
Since receiving her new heart in 2008, Cheryl says a day doesn’t go by that she does not think of her donor and the incredible gift she has been given.
”If I could say one thing to my donor, it would be thank you, and yet the words ‘thank you’ are so utterly inadequate,” Cheryl says.
“It sounds cliché to say that thank you doesn’t express it enough,” Darren adds, “but it’s so true, because organ donation is the gift of life, and what compares to that? It’s so enormous that merely saying thank you hardly seems to fill the void of the thankfulness you actually have.
“So, what would I say to Cheryl’s donor? Maybe nothing – just a hug.”