Oct. 1, 2006
By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
'You don't look like an old lady anymore. You're not all bumpy and purple.'
Not everyone would appreciate a compliment like this, but Kimberly Sommers of Temple does. She's a heart transplant survivor, and her young cousin's simple, blunt observation tells it like it is.
'I'm better now,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'I'm not sick all the time. I have energy. And that's something completely new to me.'
Mrs. Sommers, 33, was born with congestive heart problem that required surgery within 24 hours of her birth. Her childhood was consumed by strict diets and restricted physical activity.
'My chest was swollen. I had purple skin, and my face was sunk in entirely,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'I had four extra liters of fluid in my body.'
On July 10, 2005, Mrs. Sommers received a new heart at Seaton Medical Center in Austin. She waited a year post surgery to start her letter-writing project.
Mrs. Sommers wrote a letter of thanks to the donor's family for her newfound sense of life. She hopes to establish a rapport with the family of the man, still in his 30s, whose heart now beats in her chest.
She mailed the letter Monday, Sept. 25. She started writing it more than two months ago.
'I've wrote, rewrote and then wrote some more. And then I had to find the perfect stationary,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'That letter was the hardest thing I've ever had to write. I wanted to let them know that their loved one's gift has saved my life, but I didn't want to sound overjoyed in the moment of their grief.'
The Texas Organ Sharing Alliance oversees the initial correspondence between an organ recipient and the organ donor's family. There are rules that both parties must follow during the first communication attempt and response. After that, both parties are free to communicate without the Alliance's involvement.
'The Alliance says you have to wait at least a year before you contact the donor's family,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'That gives the family time to grieve.'
The initial communication must be formal and delicate, she continued, because 'you don't want it to sound like you are glad their loved one died.'
Once the Alliance receives Mrs. Sommers' letter, the Alliance will then forward it to the donor's family. Mrs. Sommers does not know the identity of her donor because it's customary for transplant donors and recipients to remain anonymous to each other.
Curious about the man who died for her to live, Mrs. Sommers is full of questions.
'What did he do? Did he have kids? And did he like chocolate? That's what I want to know,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'Ever since I woke up after surgery, I have wanted chocolate. I bet I got that from him.'
The Alliance's Web site acknowledges several organ transplant patients who have reported characteristics inherited from their donors, but medical experts do not have a scientific explanation for these occurrences.
'It just one of those things that happens, sometimes,' Mrs. Sommers said.
Even though Mrs. Sommers would like, one day, to develop a relationship with the donor's family, she said that's not the primary reason she wrote it.
'I wanted to express the gratitude I feel in my heart,' Mrs Sommers said. 'And if anything develops from it, it would be great, but I won't be disappointed if nothing happens.'
Mrs. Sommers' experience with the transplant support group that meets at Scott and White Conference Center the third Wednesday of every month tells her not to hold high expectations.
'I've heard good and bad stories about getting responses back,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'I've heard that it takes anywhere between a month and two years for a response to be received.'
Smiling through it all
Her childlike face and jovial disposition would never suggest Mrs. Sommers has lived the life of a chronically ill person.
'No matter how sick I was or how horrible I looked, I always went to work with a smile and had a sense of humor,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'That's the only way I know how to live.'
As evidenced by the story of her first few days after surgery, her humor dominates her relaxed speech, sometimes subtle, sometimes ironic, but always present.
'Considering this transplant was such a breeze, I'd do it again in a heart beat,' Mrs. Sommers cleverly quipped. 'I sailed through the surgery. By midnight on the night of the surgery, I could sit up. And the morning after, I was eating watermelon.'
Within a week, she said she was up, peppy and wanting to go back to work
'My husband made me stop bleaching the floors,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'After about four days, I was full of energy. I didn't care what I was doing, as long as I was doing it.'
As she said, Mrs. Sommers will indeed find herself - again - on the waiting list for a new heart
'A healthy transplant heart lasts 23 years,' Mrs. Sommers said.
Is she scared of having that to look forward to?
'Nah - God doesn't give us anything we can't handle, I'd just wish He'd quit trusting me so much,' Mrs. Sommers said. 'Besides, the second time around, I'll be 56 years old. By then I'll be a pro.'