(Montclair, NJ) – This Thanksgiving will be a special time for Jill Szalony, 51, of Montclair, NJ. Jill, her husband Alex Samuelson, and their three children, Benjamin, 22, Grace, 20, and Jesse, 18, are celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Jill’s life-saving heart transplant. As the family joyfully counts their many blessings, Jill is also reflecting on the gift of life and the miracle of organ donation and transplantation.
In 2006, Jill’s health issues became a concern when she was diagnosed with atrial tachycardia. Her heart health grew progressively worse, and she reached end stage heart failure in 2015.
“I remember I felt fear and a growing sadness that I would not be able to see my children finish growing up,” said Jill. “Each moment and hug felt like it could be the last one. But I was determined not to give up, and we all held our breaths that a heart would come along.”
In the early morning of October 30, 2016, Jill and her family received ‘the call’ they had been praying for as a heart was available for her transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (NBI). The next day, Jill’s heart transplant was a success thanks to the NBI medical team and support from NJ Sharing Network, the nonprofit organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue for the nearly 4,000 New Jersey residents waiting for a transplant.
“I have a vague memory of two nurses telling me, ‘Congratulations! You have a beautiful new heart,’” said Jill. “As soon as I was able to speak, I asked to listen to my new heart. I spent days watching the normal EKG amazed at what a healthy heart could do. I kept making lists of all of the things I would be able to do now that I was healthy - even some mundane things like going to the grocery store by myself. When you are faced with dying, your goals shift and the simple things mean a lot.”
The first summer after her transplant, Jill joined her family biking on the Cape Cod Rail Trail for the first time in several years. “Moments like those are priceless,” said Jill. “Seeing the joy in their faces that I could finally be an active part of their lives was a beautiful thing!”
Throughout her post-transplant journey, Jill is always mindful of her heart donor and her family who made their selfless decision to donate.
“To give others hope and a chance at life when they are faced with sorrow - that is a selfless act of love and kindness,” said Jill. “They, and all donor families, are heroes. I try to live my life to the fullest. Whenever I experience beauty in the world, a new adventure, or something amazing with my family, I thank them.”
Jill is now an active volunteer with the NJ Sharing Network, encouraging others to register as organ and tissue donors. She is also a member of NBI’s Patient Family Advisory Council to help provide healing and support for patients and their families.
“Thanks to my donor hero, I have seen my three children graduate from high school, and I even presented them with their diplomas,” said Jill. “I was also able to be a proud and teary-eyed parent dropping them off at college. My oldest son graduated from college in the spring and just made his Broadway debut playing in the orchestra for Wicked. As a family, we have been traveling and my husband and I have fun weekend excursions now that we are empty nesters. I try to find some beauty every day - whether it be a stunning sunset or someone’s laughter or just the energy to get through a busy day. Life is full and I wouldn’t want it any other way!”
According to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), one person in New Jersey dies every three days waiting for a transplant. Just one organ and tissue donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of over 75 people. To learn more, get involved and register as an organ and tissue donor, visit www.NJSharingNetwork.org.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of NJ Sharing Network
(Left-to-Right) Jill Szalony, her husband Alex Samuelson, and their three children, Grace, Benjamin and Jesse.