Friday, April 11, 2008
By Adelle Nazarian
She’d never liked beer, Snickers, green peppers or chicken nuggets before. It was only after she received her new heart and lungs that Claire Sylvia took on a slew of characteristics that soon would be her own.
Sylvia, 47, was dying from pulmonary hypertension — a disease that increases the body’s blood pressure in the lung vasculature and most often leads to death — in 1988 when she became the first person in New England to have a heart-lung transplant.
It was while recovering in the intensive care unit that she started feeling the presence of another body. When a writer reporting on her surgery asked her, “Now that you’ve had this miracle, what do you want more than anything else?” she was startled by her own answer:
“Actually,” she said, “I’m dying for a beer right now.”
There is no explanation for how Sylvia took on the characteristics and discovered the identity of Timothy Lamirande, the 18-year-old victim of a motorcycle accident whose heart has been beating in her chest for 20 years.
In her book, “A Change of Heart,” she describes how she discovered her unknown donor’s identity through her dreams and sensations.
In the months following her surgery, Sylvia says, she discovered a newfound confidence she’d never experienced. She found herself in better health, she was in better shape and while she “still felt attracted to men, I didn’t feel that same need to have a boyfriend.”
Her teenage daughter described her gait as being very manly. Sylvia also experienced a dramatic change in her level of energy and health. “I used to get sick a lot, and since I’ve gotten Tim’s heart, I rarely get sick,” she said Thursday in a phone interview from her home in Florida, where she moved six years ago from Maine.
But how is it possible for someone to take on the traits of an organ donor? And how is it possible to learn the unknown donor’s name through a dream?
Sylvia says the defining moment came to her a few months after the transplant surgery, when she had a dream about a tall young man with sandy hair whom she associated with the name “Tim L.”
“I woke up knowing that Tim L. was my donor and that some parts of his spirit and personality were now within me.”
Transplant patients are never told the names of their donors, for reasons of privacy. But Sylvia somehow had gotten through to the other side.
After a second dream nine months later, and the question still burning inside her, Sylvia decided she needed to meet her donor’s family.
She contacted the hospital’s transplant coordinator, Gail Eddy, in hopes of getting in touch with them, but to no avail. The transplant program observes a strict code of confidentiality. Even after mentioning Tim L.’s name, Eddy refused to provide the information. “Let it go. You’re opening a can of worms,” she told Sylvia.
But a few months later, and with the help of friend who’d said he’d dreamt of Tim L.’s obituary the night they’d met at a local theater, Sylvia got up the nerve to track her donor’s family down. She and her friend found Tim Lamirande’s obituary, including his name and address, in a Boston newspaper.
She wrote the Lamirandes, and they agreed to meet with her. All her questions were confirmed as the young man’s parents and siblings attested to Tim’s food tastes and personality traits.
Would Sylvia be different today had her donor not been Tim, but a woman?
She thinks so.
“Because every person has their own set of memories imbued in the heart and when they’re transferred, their memories become part of the recipient’s persona,” she told FOXNews.com. “I definitely would have been different.”
Sylvia says she conducted research for 10 years after the heart and lung transplant and found other organ recipients who experienced the same, if not similar, changes in their personalities.
How did she know Tim L. was her donor?
“Sometimes you just know,” she says. “It’s just what you believe. Especially if you’re a spiritual person. You can’t see love, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it. But you know there is love there. It just depends on what you believe.”
Sylvia, who is Jewish, describes Tim’s family as being very spiritual. “They are a very practicing, very devout family,” she says. “So I have a Catholic heart inside this Jewish girl. … I always was spiritual and have always believed in things of the spirit. This just reinforced it.”
But her story doesn’t end there.
Ten years later, in 1998, Sylvia received a kidney transplant from her ballroom dancing partner and ex-boyfriend. She says she experienced a post-surgery phenomenon similar to the first. This time, she gained a fondness for cooking.
“I started baking and making things for him that I hadn’t done before,” Sylvia revealed in a phone interview. “He said, ‘You cook just like my mother used to.’ ” His mother would cook for him often.
Now 68, she accepts that her story is baffling. “Doctors run when they see me. They don’t know how to take it. I’m like a pink elephant and they don’t know what to do with me.”
She lives with Parkinson’s disease, has survived breast cancer, has only half a thyroid and a very bad case of shingles for which she recently had surgery. “I’ve survived a lot of different, different things,” she says.
She remains in touch with Tim L.’s family. She is close to his mother and they exchange Christmas gifts when she goes to Boston, where his family resides. She plans on flying there on May 23, just six days before the 20th anniversary of Tim’s gift of life to her.
As for those characteristics she adopted from Tim? For the first few years, Sylvia felt as though she was going through life with two sets of eyes. Since then, that has tapered off and “they are all a part of me. I inherited them and that happened a long time ago. They are my new being.”
“A Change of Heart” has been published in 12 different languages. In 2002, the film “Heart of a Stranger,” starring Jane Seymour, was released based on the book.