A fender-bender in 2009 changed Denise Bartlett’s life forever. Before the accident she smoked, consumed copious amounts of caffeine, and didn’t give much thought to her heart. But a series of seemingly unrelated events culminated in Denise becoming the recipient of a heart-transplant, meeting the family behind the heart, and gaining a new awareness of how precious life really is.

The car accident itself was fairly minor, enough so that Denise declined to be taken to the hospital right after because she felt fine. The next day she woke up with whiplash and decided to get checked out. During the routine examination, her doctor noticed that her heart was racing. At the time she chalked it up to all of the caffeine she’d been drinking right before the appointment, but the doctor refused to let her leave until her heart slowed down. After an EKG, Denise was admitted to the hospital…but then nothing else was found. She was scheduled for a stress test the following week, and sent home.

But her symptoms began to develop and then worsen; in addition to a racing heart, she began having trouble breathing. A heart catheter revealed that Denise had congestive heart failure, and that her heart was only operating at 15% of what it should be. After taking a strong dose of medication, Denise was good to go. And for five years, she was fine.

In 2014, congestive heart failure was the last thing on Denise’s mind. She and her husband were preparing for a road trip to Colorado from their home in Texas. The morning they were supposed to leave, she woke up with swollen ankles. She said, “I knew right then that something was happening, because I remember hearing that swollen ankles are a sign of heart trouble.” Nonetheless, she insisted they get on the road. “But by the time we got to Raton (in New Mexico), I was gasping for breath. I told my husband that if we didn’t get to a hospital, I wasn’t going to make it.”

What Denise thought was a heart attack was actually her congestive heart failure showing severe symptoms for the first time. From Raton she was put on a Life Flight to a larger hospital, where the doctor took one look at her scans and proclaimed, “You’re going to need a heart transplant.” From there, the doctors took several measures to keep Denise going, including draining fluid from around her heart and putting her on oxygen. They decided to continue on their trip to Colorado, but her symptoms continued to escalate.

A second seemingly minor accident, this time while riding in an ATV while exploring near their cabin, fractured two of Denise’s vertebrae and greatly exacerbated her heart symptoms. The doctors couldn’t do surgery due to the fluid rapidly filling up around her heart. This time there was no getting around it: Denise and her family needed to cut their vacation short, and they needed to get back to Texas immediately. “Don’t drive, fly.” Instructed the doctor, impressing upon her the urgency of her situation.
After returning home Denise was sent to Baylor to be evaluated as a candidate for a heart transplant. After receiving clean panels on the rest of her health, she was put on the waiting list. On October 25th, 2014, she got the call: a donor heart was ready for her.

A year later, Denise was ready to meet the donor family. She’d spent the previous twelve months healing, curious about her heart, and observing new habits and likes she’d never had before. “Before my heart surgery, I was never crafty! Now I can’t stop making things, I’ve become very creative! And what’s more, I used to love spicy food. The spicier, the better. Now I don’t care for it much anymore,” she observed. And her musical tastes had changed, from classic rock to more contemporary alternative rock. She wanted to know if there was a connection between these new tastes and her heart donor.

The Texas Organ Sharing Alliance connected Denise to the family through a letter. After waiting a few months with no answer, she was sure there wouldn’t be a response. But then, a letter arrived. And it with it was pictures, stories, and the information she’d been longing for. Eventually Denise made plans to meet the family and get to know the incredible person whose heart now beat in her chest.

The first meeting took place at the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance’s offices. When Denise arrived she waited outside until the donor’s entire family arrived so she could meet them all at once. When she walked inside, Denise was immediately greeted by hugs from Hortencia, the mother of the donor, and the rest of her family. What’s more, Denise was about to learn about the incredible person who had saved her life.

Her heart had belonged to Justin, a young man who loved the rodeo, art, music, and his large and close-knit family. Sure enough, learning about Justin confirmed some of Denise’s theories about her new likes. Justin loved to draw, and he disliked spicy foods. He loved listening to music, especially the alternative rock that Denise now favored. But most of all, he loved the rodeo, and competed often. At the meeting, Justin’s family was able to listen to this special heart, now beating in Denise’s chest.

He was only twelve at the time of his sudden passing in a rodeo accident, but he had already been thinking about the kind of impact he wanted to make on the world. Justin’s mother shared something with Denise: not long before his passing, as part of a school assignment, Justin had written a letter about his hopes for the future. He wanted to do something that saved lives for a living.

Justin, Denise' heart donor

Justin, Denise’ heart donor

And he did. With this ultimate act of service, Justin was able to save six lives, including Denise’s.

Denise has continued to keep in touch with Justin’s family. And while she prays daily about her feelings over her heart coming from a child whose life ended too soon, she has this message for other organ donor recipients who are considering reaching out to the donor family, but possibly hesitant for fear of causing pain: “I encourage them to find their donor family, because it’ll bring closure to them as well to know who got their loved ones’ heart. Justin’s family was able to see that his heart not only saved a life, but was being put to good use.”

The above photo shows Denise Bartlett (wearing a 1heart2lives shirt) with Justin’s family, at the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance’s offices.