730 Days of Unending Gratitude.

730 days. 24 months. 1,051,200 minutes that I am alive because of a stranger, a stranger that I will never get to thank. 730 sunrises that I have had the opportunity to see all because of a selfless family somewhere in the country. 24 months of happiness, laughter and joy because of the miracle that is modern medicine. Two full years of life, what a gift that truly is.

I always considered myself to be a grateful person. I loved to take time and appreciate the world around me, I found myself counting my blessings ever so frequently and I enjoyed spending time with beloved family and friends as a reminder of how wonderful life really can be. Despite my unending gratitude, prior to my illness I never really thought of how fragile life actually is.

My illness came out of nowhere. I had lived 19 years on this earth with almost a perfect bill of health. I rarely even caught the common cold and only found myself in a doctor’s office for a routine physical or in the rare situation that I was feeling under the weather. I was 19 and living a normal life for someone my age. I was away at school, attending classes at my dream college, making friends that I knew were beyond special, enjoying my challenging coursework and ceasing every opportunity presented to me.

My dreams were merely wiped away from me in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, I was home undergoing test after test. Forced to withdraw from college, pack up my quaint dorm room and bid farewell to my best friends. “I’ll be back soon,” I said, or “I’ll see you next semester.” I did not imagine the challenging and frightening road that was ahead, but in reality, no one did.

Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be where I am today. I never imagined that I would be at the school I am today, majoring in what I am, living how I am living. I never imagined that my life would be marked by scars from life-saving operations or “battle wounds” from a near death experience. I never imagined that I would have a box of over a dozen medications attached to me whenever I leave the house. I never would have imagined that I would be so passionate about an issue that just a little over two years ago, I knew nothing about: organ donation.

Never in a million years did I imagine my life to be what it is today. But if you ask me if I would change anything? The answer has been and always will be a definite no.

Yes, some days are incredibly difficult. Some days it is hard to look in the mirror and grasp how much my journey has changed my appearance, from my body to even my hair. Five long months in the hospital altered my life in many ways, ways I am still trying to fix to this day. But those five long months and my two years living post-transplant, have granted me two gifts I will never be able to express my gratitude for: the gift of life and the gift of living.

Because of my donor, I am able to physically wake up each day. I am able to climb the stairs without feeling like my legs will give out at any given second. I am able to walk on the boardwalk and take in the beautiful view of the beach. I am able to ride my bike, run, exercise, be my greatest self. Frankly, I am able to do everything. But most importantly? I am able to live.

If my journey has taught me anything in life, it is to appreciate every single second. It has shown me how important it is to live, to love and to make the best of every day. Life is just too short. My first year post-transplant was the hardest year of my life. It was a cycle of medication adjustment, battling with my suppressed immune system and struggling with the emotional stresses that follow a traumatic life experience. I learned that there are days in which life feels incredibly difficult and it feels as if the entire world is fighting against you. But through my struggles I learned how to be strong, I learned how to rise up and keep fighting.

The doctors tell me I will never remember the traumatic events that came when I first got sick. That fact, is something I am thankful for each day. I consider myself lucky that I am not haunted with the beginning stages of my illness each day, but instead I can choose what I want to think about. Instead of remembering the nights I sat fearful in my hospital room or the post-operation struggles I faced, I choose to remember the good.

Two years later it still gives me chills to recall the immense support I received from the community, from strangers and from my loved ones. It seems as if the world is constantly flooded with bad news each day, causing selfless and altruistic acts to often go unnoticed. When things feel as if they are becoming too much, I remember the hundreds of cards I received, most from people I had never even met. I remember how the families of my best friends came and decorated my house for Christmas so that my family would not feel too sad. I remember the dozens and dozens of people who made the lengthy drive up to the hospital just to sit with me for a few hours each day. I remember the donations made and the sweet messages sent. I remember the prayers, the events and concerts organized, the social media posts, the blessings and the love. I remember it all, I remember it because it is why I am here today.

Some might say I am alive by a miracle; some will say it was the beauty of transplantation.  Others will argue it was incredible doctors and surgeons that never gave up on my case, some will say it was all the works of a higher power above. I like to believe that I am here today, and continue to live each day to the fullest, due to a combination of all of that and more. I believe I am here today because I never gave up on myself and because no one ever gave up on me. As the very wise fairy godmother once said, “Even miracles take a little time,” and I’m reminded of this each time I feel my perfect and healthy heart beating inside of me.

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For more information about organ donation or to sign up to be a donor visit: www.donatelife.net.

 

Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Klingbeil/ Caitlin Klingbeil Photography.

January 31, 2014.

January 31, 2014.

Four years ago on this day, I woke up to get ready for a busy day of senior year. I would attend my classes and immediately go to rehearsal for that year’s musical. Four years ago, I was an eager student waiting for the news that would determine my future and my educational plans. January 31st, the day that the mailbox would be stuffed with either that long anticipated large red folder reading “YES” in bold letters, or a quaint tightly sealed envelope containing dreaded news of deferred dreams. That morning as I stood over my dresser deciding on an outfit, I truly believed that my future, my identity and my abilities would be determined by the size of the envelope that the mail carrier would deliver.

My best friend drove me home to check the mailbox. We waited and waited and tried to pass the time. After what felt like a century, the mailman hand delivered me a large envelope from the school of my dreams. That cold January afternoon, it felt as if the mailman hand delivered me my future.

That night, I celebrated. I stared at the large red folder with pride and optimism. The next four years of predicted friendships, success, educational milestones and life-changing moments played out in my mind. Holding that red folder, I felt like I was holding the next chapter of my life. In many ways, I was.

That red envelope did in fact turn out to be my ticket to new and amazing best friends, phenomenal experiences and one of the best years of my life. That large red envelope was my ticket to numerous opportunities and life-changing moments. In so many ways, January 31, 2014 did change my life. But I was wrong to assume that it defined my life’s path.

I would later learn that there would be other friendships to be made, other experiences to be lived, other large envelopes to celebrate and new dream schools to attend. There would be other moments that would define my identity and shape my future. There would be other days that I remember and other moments that I would get to celebrate. I would later learn how ridiculous I was to assume that my whole future would be determined on that specific day and by the size of the envelope in my painted mailbox.

Don’t get me wrong, receiving that large red envelope was one of the best moments of my life, I wasn’t wrong about that. What I was wrong about, was thinking that I, a naive 17-year-old high school senior, had the ability to meticulously map out my future years in advance. I didn’t take the time to think about possible curve balls that life could violently spike my way. I didn’t take the time to think about crazy things that could happen along the way. And that, that is where I was totally and completely wrong.

My life could not possibly be any more different at this point than I imagined it would be four years ago. If all had gone according to plan, I would be in the midst of my final semester of college. I would be student teaching in an elementary school in Poughkeepsie and trying to figure out what life post-grad would possibly be like. If all had gone according to plan, I would not have transferred schools, or gone through the tedious college application process two additional times. I would not have had to meet with transfer advisors and go over credit transfer reports. I would not have had to continuously adjust to life at a new school, while simultaneously creating a new normal. But if all had gone according to plan, would I be this happy? Would I be this strong? Would I even be who I am today?

People ask me ever so frequently how much time was lost in school when I was sick, or how far behind I fell. Individuals I barely know will bluntly ask me how far behind my hospital stay put me on my educational path. I’ve learned to laugh, smile and spit out my well-practiced and perfectly choreographed response: “Not as much time as I thought I would lose,” or “I’m just grateful to be back in the classroom.”

Reflecting on this question, I see things differently than those around me do. I don’t see it as time lost or “falling behind.” I see it as gaining time- time to find myself, time to find what I want to do, time to decide what to study, time to make more friends, time to try new things. My life turned completely upside down when I was sick, showing me that there is no need to be anything but happy. “Falling behind” in school as some might say, has given me the opportunity to only do what makes me happy, to only pursue what fills me with complete and utter joy. If you ask me, that is a gift in itself.

I laugh at the version of myself that I was four years ago. As I once read, “we make plans and God laughs.” Right now, I have absolutely no clue where I will be in another four years, and I have no intention of trying to figure it out or to plan it all right now. I am content where I am in life, more content than I could have ever imagined. I am my healthiest and happiest self. When you think about it, we as individuals grow so much in a day, a week, a month, a year. It is practically impossible to figure out what the future holds and it is tiring to try.

Recently, one of my favorite quotes has become, “difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” Last year, my first year post-transplant was one of the hardest years of my life. The year before that was traumatic and life-changing. During this time, I was lost and confused and constantly in a state of sadness. I was trying to adjust to my new “normal,” while attempting to revive what I once defined ordinary as. The past couple of years were an incredibly difficult road, but they have led me to one of the most beautiful destinations: complete bliss.

So I won’t graduate from my original dream school with my friends this coming May, but in a few semesters I’ll graduate from my new favorite place with new friends and celebrate my new accomplishments.

And frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

The girl in the photograph.

Her eyes were empty. Emotionless. Her smile was forced. The girl I was looking at in the photograph showed sadness, darkness and fear.

That girl in the photograph was me.

For the longest time I couldn’t write about it. Person after person suggested that I try. They suggested that I at least attempt to put my emotions into words. “Let it out,” they would say.

“Let people know what you’re feeling.” I sat down so many times, fingers gently brushing the keys, but no words would flow. I would curl up under my covers at night, leather bound notebook in hand, but the pen remained motionless between my fingers. “Writers block,” I would assume. But it was much more, I simply could not feel.

The wave of emotion hit me 8 months after I was released from the hospital. It hit me in the most unexpected of places, the place known as “the happiest place on earth.” Walt Disney World. My family and I were sent on a week-long vacation to celebrate my health and our resilience. I was ecstatic to go, to celebrate something so wonderful. But the first night, after landing in Orlando, I became an anxious mess. I threw up twice in the bathroom of our beautiful five-star hotel. “Stomach pain” I assumed. But it was much more. My body was simply overtaken with anxiety.

I found myself constantly wondering if I was ok. Asking myself if I was tired because my new heart was failing, if I was going to be sick again, if I would once again find my life on hold as I remained in the small constrains of a dull hospital room. My worrying took over. I couldn’t focus on anything. My mind couldn’t make rational decisions, my emotions and experiences were getting then best of me. My past was taking over my future, my now.

I agreed to seek professional help. I decided to meet with a therapist once a week to talk about everything I had been through and how the horrors of my past were creeping their way into present day. I withdrew from school for the semester to avoid making myself more ill and to minimize the additional amount of stress in my life. I read a lot of books, watched a lot of television. My mind could only focus for a short amount of time. I longed for my life to return back to a sense of normalcy. I knew and understand that the past had redefined my personal meaning of “normal,” but I sought out something similar. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

Whenever someone brought up my illness, my past or the insane events of the last year, I would physically and mentally shut down. I would leave the room, change the subject or grow so angry I would cry. At the time, I wanted everyone to forget it all and to focus on my good health, my bright open future, the mere fact that I’m alive. I realized through my weekly therapy sessions that I felt those strong emotions because simply, I didn’t want my surgery to define me. I had been someone entirely different before, why couldn’t I return to that now?

I spent most of my days at home from last December until April. Sure, I did things. I ran errands, I saw friends, I visited family. But those small trips around the corner, those short drives, felt like cross-country road trips. I was tired afterward, needing to rest. I learned that it had nothing to do with my health, but instead that it was all in my mind. My mind was tired from putting on a show, pretending to be okay, pretending to be happy.

Organ donation has been a topic in the news quite frequently as of late. Selena Gomez, a largely popular public figure privately underwent a kidney transplant a few months ago. Her donor was her best friend, a miracle and an amazing gift. For the first time since her surgery, Selena stepped forward and gave her first interview on the Today show Monday  morning. A fan of Selena myself, I was eager to watch her interview and hear more about her journey. But what I took away from it was far more than I ever expected, for the simple fact that Selena did not sugar coat a single thing. She was real and honest about how it was difficult, emotional and life-changing. I felt like she was talking to me and only to me.

The public wants to hear the beautiful happy ending, about how the journey lead to a wonderful destination- good health. But see the ending, the ending is only the beginning. The surgery itself is just the start of a whole new beginning, a whole new life. A life filled with medications, doctors’ appointments, emotional distress and adjustments. I was told over and over again that the first year is the hardest, and I could not agree more.

I was being too hard on myself. I was expecting myself to feel great all the time, to feel happy all the time, to get over the recent series of events in the quick blink of an eye. I did not give myself a sufficient amount of time, a lesson I learned the hard way. It got to a point in which I just needed to sit back, take a breath and take it all in. I just needed to sit back and celebrate that I was alive.

I returned from the hospital post-transplant in just twelve days. Upon returning home, I felt that I needed to return back to normalcy in that very moment. I did not yet understand that normal, gained a new definition. Normal was not the same normal as it was in high school, or in the time I spent away at school. Normal was redefined, and I guess, so was I.

It’s quite ironic to say this, but I believe that the past year, my first year post-transplant, was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned more about myself in my time spent reflecting than I could have ever imagined. I grew closer with my friends and with my family and most importantly, I took time for myself. I let myself cry when I wanted to, I let myself relax when I needed to and I learned how to listen to my body. I learned how to be “normal.”

I have a lot of scars and perhaps they are my favorite thing about myself. The scar that runs down my sternum from the spot in which my chest was opened, is fading faster than I expected. I didn’t realize exactly how fast it was healing until I stumbled upon a picture of myself from April of 2016. I took it in the hospital the very second my bandage was removed. I told my nurse on that day that I was scared to see my scar, I was afraid of what it would look like. When she removed the bandage, she reassured me that it was nothing to worry about, that it was not invasive in the slightest. I used my phone as a way to view the scar and ended up capturing a picture in the moment. It is a picture I will cherish forever.

I will admit, some days I wear a sweater or a high necked shirt to cover it up. I am disappointed in myself on those days, but sometimes, it is just too much to talk about. Some days I do not feel like explaining my situation to strangers or describing where it came from. Some days, I just want to be the Taylor before and embrace the fact that I’m alive. Some days, I want to keep my story to myself.

I have noticed that people tread extra carefully around me. But truthfully? Right now, where I am in my life, I love talking about my journey and about my health. But I also love talking about school. I love talking about the news, books I have read, television shows I binge watch, my current courses and my future career aspirations. And you know what I also love? I love being able to talk about the two together, for it is because I am healthy that I am able to go to school, to follow my dreams, to plan a career. I have realized that my past illness does not define me, but it did assist in making me the person I am today. It led me to this specific university, this particular major and this one career path. It led me to some of the most fantastic individuals I have ever encountered. It helped me to meet a wonderful network of people with similar situations. It led me to so many incredible experiences, people and places. These things, I am grateful for each day.

I was trying to describe my happiness to someone the other day and I could not find adequate words to describe my current mental state. It occurred to me that perhaps I am the happiest I have been in my life thus far. I have always been a particularly happy person, but it seems as if now, in my current state, my life has fallen into perfect place. I am beyond happy at school and working toward a degree, I am blessed to have such amazing friends and family. My health has been perfect and I just recently celebrated the year and a half mark since my surgery. And what a beautiful gift that is.

Her eyes are sparkling.  Ecstatic. Her smile is bright and natural.  The girl I was looking at in the photograph shows happiness, bliss, peace.

That girl in the photograph is me.  

365 Days of Thanks.

Writer’s block can be defined as: “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” For the past few weeks I’ve stared at a blank document, trying to describe the last year with coherent sentences and adequate words. I would blame my lack of progress on a dreaded case of writer’s block, close my laptop and walk away. It has been frustrating, angering and upsetting to not be able to express how I feel in words, to lack the ability to tell the story I possess inside of me. In the past weeks I’ve realized that the true reason I have been unsuccessful is the fact that I feel too much. I feel too many emotions to simply summarize into a short written piece. I have learned too much in the past year to even try to explain to another individual. But I guess we all have to start somewhere.

One year ago to this exact day I was surrounded by some of my best friends in my quaint hospital room, catching up on all things exciting and stressful in their lives. I was ecstatic to have visitors that so easily distracted me from my daunting reality of waiting. It was during those visits that I felt completely normal. It was during those visits that I saw a bright, positive ending to the complete and utter darkness I was living. One year ago to this exact day my visit was interrupted by the long awaited news that a perfect donor heart had become available and that surgery would begin later that night. One year ago to this exact day my life completely changed.

But see I felt guilt, I felt heartbroken because I knew, and I still know, that one year ago this exact day, a family somewhere in the country was saying goodbye to a loved one. A year ago to this exact day a family was surrounding their loved one, just like mine was surrounding me, but in their situation they were saying a final goodbye. As that family was mourning, they saved my life along with the lives of many others. Organ donation is utterly beautiful. I can only hope the family knows how truly and deeply that day changed my life. I know one year ago to this exact day, the lives of that entire family were changed.

The hours to follow were a complete and total whirlwind. I was being prepared for surgery, my entire family came to visit me and reminded me how loved I truly am, my phone exploded with well wishes and excited messages from friends and even strangers, my stomach churned with anticipation and only a small amount of nervousness. I just kept telling myself that in a few hours I would be normal again, I would be on the road to living life better than ever before, in a few hours I would be one large step closer to going home. I was wheeled away from my parents and into the operating room. As I waited for the anesthesia to kick in, I said a prayer to myself and reminded my eager mind that when I woke up, my life would really be beginning.

I don’t remember much post- surgery. I could not open my eyes but I could hear the voices of all my loved ones talking to me, telling me that everything was great, that my surgery was done and that most importantly, I had my new heart. I had never felt healthier than I did in that moment, for a wave of relief washed over me and I was actually excited. I knew a long road of recovery was ahead and that my life was going to be changed forever, but deep down I knew that the hardest part was over, I could truly accomplish anything. I made it my mission to do just so.

The months following were easier than I thought. I was feeling great, amazing, much quicker than I had ever anticipated. I made it home to my house just 12 days after my surgery and instantly resumed my normal life of socializing, spending time with my family and most of all, living. I wanted to prove to myself, and to those around me, that I was more than okay, I was great. And I did just that. I returned home in May and had a wonderful summer of doing whatever I wanted. I spent time in the pool, I worked, I made plans to continue my academic career, I was thriving.

When I look back on the first few months post-transplant, I realize just how truly mistaken I was. Yes, I was healthy, with perfect results from every test and biopsy. Yes, I was happy, elated to be living my life better than ever before. But I was completely wrong when I thought the hard part was over. I should’ve known that the emotional toll of my long journey would catch up with me. In fact, I think I did know, I just dreaded the day I would actually let myself accept all that happened. When it did, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Death is an extremely hard concept to grasp. It’s even harder to grasp that I was once extremely close to it. It’s hard to conceptualize just how sick I was and just how dependent I was on the mechanical device that was pumping my heart for five months. It is tragically beautiful to understand that a stranger died and I was able to live. I struggle everyday knowing that I, a girl who was once petrified of hospitals, lived in one for five long months. It is frightening to know that I, someone once afraid of doctors, underwent seven life-saving surgeries. It is easy for me to only live in the positive times because there is an unmeasurable amount of miracles and experiences in which I encountered during the last 365 days. But I’ve realized that I can’t just push away the bad. The bad isn’t something I want to talk about. It isn’t something I want brought up in a conversation, but it is a major part of who I am. It is what made me brave, it is what made me appreciative, it is what made me alive.

One year ago I was preparing to enter an intense and life-saving surgery. Now, here I sit, 365 days later. Once again I am surrounded by my loved ones. I am preparing for my new start at a new school come the fall, I am occupying my time doing things I love with people I love, I am thriving. I know that the more time that passes, the further away this all will feel. The past twelve months flew by in the blink of an eye, despite the fact that my life changed with every given second. I cope with the struggles that come along on this journey, I thank God every single day and I hold my donor and their family so close to my heart. 365 days ago I was given a second chance at life. I was given an opportunity to inspire, to live my dreams, to laugh, to love and to enjoy every second I gained.

I don’t want to be defined by my situation. I don’t want to be known for my surgery, for the battle that I overcame. Instead I want to be known for my story. I want to be known for what came out of that extremely dark time and how those moments built me into the person I am today. I struggle greatly when thinking about the person I was before all of this. There were a long 19 and a half years of my life where I never once worried about taking medications, doctor’s appointments, if I was going to be okay or about my health at all. There were a long 19 and a half years that I spent building character and finding myself. There was a girl before all of this who I don’t want to be anymore. I like who I am, I like being brave, I like being strong and I like being courageous. I love the story that I have to tell.

Many people told me that the first year would be the hardest. Without a doubt, I agree. It was a year of uncertainty, a year of firsts, a year of adjustments and a year of major changes. But it was a year of so many lessons. I learned more about myself and the world than I could ever imagine. I learned how loved I am and how important life is. Life is so much more than grades on an exam, striving to be perfect, finding a job, graduating college- life is about living. I definitely won’t be skydiving or climbing a mountain any time soon, but I will be living in my own way and loving every minute of it. To me, living is cherishing my loved ones, living is getting a chance at tomorrow and loving every second of it. To me, life is feeling my healthy heartbeat every day and the immense gratefulness that comes along with that. 365 days ago so much has changed, including myself, but one thing is for certain, I’m still following my heart.

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For more information about Organ Donation, or to sign up to be a donor, visit: https://www.donatelife.net

A Different Resolution.

2016.

I tried to find sufficient words to describe the whirlwind that was the last 365 days. 2016 was a year of lessons, more lessons than my 17 years and counting of education have provided. 2016 was a year of loss, loss of my own loved ones, loss of loved ones for people very close to me. 2016 was a year of grief. A year of grief for family close to me, friends close to me, and those around me. 2016 was a year of challenges, obstacles, tribulations and trials. But 2016 was also a year of light, kindness, love and celebration. It was a year of tragedy, but it was also a year of rebirth. 2016 taught me more about myself, those around me, the world and the beautiful life I was given, than I could ever fathom knowing. 2016 was a balance of the worst and the best year. This past year was a thrilling novel mixed with every possible genre, but ending in the happiest of endings.

I avoid thinking about the life that was mine just one year ago, as much as possible. I avoid imaging the pain and fear my family was feeling, at all costs. Avoiding the darkness that covered our lives last New Years is quite easy when 2016 brought the most miraculous of miracles. We as individuals will never know what tomorrow holds, so the only think we can do is hope. We can hope for a brighter tomorrow, pray for good health, and have faith. Have faith in the beauty of light, have faith in the end of the darkness and understand how fragile life is. Once we start grasping that, I can assure you that life becomes more enjoyable.

I never really believed in New Year’s resolutions. I did not find it necessary to make a better tomorrow based on a specific day of the year. I believe in bettering myself and creating a better future each and every day. However; tonight, as 2017 rolls in, I have developed some new approaches to life and new outlooks on the world around me.

This new year I am going to:

Love harder. As I said, 2016 taught me how fragile life can be. When the clock strikes midnight tonight, I’m making it my vow to love extra hard this new year. I’ll hold my loved ones tighter, love strangers, love enemies and love my friends more than ever before. Tomorrow is not promised- but the only thing that is,is love. Come 2017, I vow to not hold grudges, to always forgive, to always be honest and to most importantly, love, love, love. Love others, love myself and love life.

Live more. This new year I’m going to take more risks than ever before. I’m going to do the things I thought I once was unable to do. I’m going to conquer every fear, from the smallest to the largest. This past year has forced me to overcome the greatest obstacles and challenges in my life thus far. I often find myself hoping that I am never faced with such fear and uncertainty ever again. But I know that if ever I was, I could most definitely handle it due to the strength I gained through the last 12 months. I learned how important it is to enjoy every absolute second of every day. How important it is to make the most of every given second and how important it is to have fun. I vow to live the life I want. To do only things that make me happy and to always cherish the gift of a new day.

Enjoy today. I often find myself planning too far ahead. Mapping out the next week in entirety, planning the next semester, looking forward to what’s to come in the next month. Especially during the busiest of times, it is all too easy to get caught up in what needs to be done, what should be done or what could have been done. This new year I vow to enjoy each and every day and worry a little less about the future. If I’ve learned anything, it is that the future is the most uncertain thing the world has ever known. Life can change in the blink of an eye so why waste time planning so far ahead? Life is better than the stress and worry that comes along with that. So much of life can be lived by embracing the moment, the present, the today. I vow not to miss that anymore.

Looking back, the years always seem to blend into one another as the months soar by. But once you really look into all that occurs during the course of the year, you discover just how much truly happens during those 365 days. A year can be filled with so much heartbreak, sadness, tragedy and despair. It can be filled with celebrations, joyful moments, love and laughter. A year is a lot of time to waste being unhappy. Embrace today, love your loved ones, and most importantly live. Life is all about how we look at it, so this year I’ve decided to look on the bright side- and trust me, there is always one.

 

A Grateful Heart.

Thanksgiving is a season of giving, thanking and expressing love for all the wonderful gifts we are given. This Thanksgiving, more than ever before, I have so much to be grateful for. Even the simplest of gifts are magnified in value this season. This year I will not take anything for granted. I consider myself so blessed to spend the holidays at home with my loved ones, for to me, there is no greater gift. So as Thanksgiving week rolls around, I most definitely will be showing my gratitude for the elements of life that can so easily be taken for granted:

My Home: A wise girl from Kansas clicked the heels of her bright ruby red slippers and stated the words: “there’s no place like home.” In my opinion, no truer words have ever been spoken. While being away for so long, all I could imagine was the comfort of my own house and all the joy that it brings. But I also could not imagine the joy I would feel walking through the town I have called home for my entire life. I consider myself beyond blessed to have such a supportive, compassionate and welcoming town and community. The outpouring of love in which I received from neighbors, friends and strangers over the past year has been overwhelming. This beautifully small town will always hold a special place in my heart. I am lucky to call this my home. I am grateful every second of every day that I am able to celebrate my absolute favorite time of year in this place so dear to me.

My Family: Where do I even begin? I vividly remember being asked the question,“what are you thankful for?” during this time of year when I was younger. I always answered with my family. I never imagined that my love and appreciation for my family could grow any bigger, until this last year. There are absolutely no words to describe how grateful I am and how full my heart is with all of the love, support and compassion I am given each and every day from my loved ones. I truly think that my family is the strongest, most amazing group of individuals. There will never be a sufficient amount of words to describe all that they have done for me. I cannot wait to sit around the table with my loved ones this holiday season and share my gratefulness and my joy.

My Friends: God has given me the greatest friends both near and far away. Each friend in my life has come into my life at a different time, for a different reason. Each friend in my life has a perfect space in my heart. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the small families I have been given in each group of friends. From the friends I have grown up with, to the friends I just met a few years ago, God has given me the wonderful privilege of sharing an unmeasurable amount of laughs, memories and endearing moments. These friends are some of the bravest, funniest, interesting and caring people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

My Education: School has always been one of the most important and exciting elements of my life. For as long as I can remember I have always cherished the gift of being able to go to the classroom each day and exit knowing something greater than I did when I entered. After not being in school last year, I am thrilled to be back in the classroom this semester. I am so thankful to have to opportunity to learn each day and work toward my long awaited goals and a greater career. Although school can be sometimes daunting- from early morning classes to difficult assignments, I cherish that I am able to drive to school every day and study topics that I so dearly enjoy.

My Health: This time last year my health was deteriorating rapidly. Doctors were unsure exactly was wrong with me, and I don’t remember last Thanksgiving at all. Each and every day I am grateful for my health and my beating heart. Our health is a gift that so often goes unappreciated. Days go by quickly, our lives get consumed by our daily stress and busy routines. I have learned to take a step back and appreciate the fact that I am healthy, healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. What greater gift could one ask for?

Organ Donation: This holiday season I am thankful for something I never once imagined would be such a vital part of my life. This holiday season I think about the selfless family who gave me the most powerful gift in the entire world, my life. I think about organ donors all over the world and I think and pray for the thousands of people waiting for transplants each day.

This Thanksgiving I will celebrate my life, my family, my friends and my health. I am more grateful for my life than ever before and I will not waste a second of this second chance that I was given. I have the best gift of all this holiday season and the greatest reason to celebrate. I know each and every day when I feel my heartbeat that I have a beautiful angel watching over myself and my family. I also know that that angel will be sitting with us at the dinner table this Thanksgiving.

For more information about Organ Donation or to sign up to be a donor, visit https://www.donatelife.net.

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Welcoming Change.

09-20-18

 There is something so enchanting when the fall comes around each year. The crisp autumn air gives us all a break from the suffocating one-hundred degree days, and the start of a new school year offers a plethora of opportunities in each day. Although the fall season represents the year ending soon, it also provides a new beginning.

I have always hated change. For as long as I can remember I have always been set in my routines and my normal ways. Change can be Earth-shattering. It can alter the way in which we see the world around us and the way in which we go about our normal lives. However; if I’ve learned anything in the last year, it is that change can also be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of life if we allow it to be.

Exactly one year ago I was sitting in the library at a beautiful school, surrounded by my textbooks, while studying intensely for midterm examinations. I was as stressed as I could be. I was drained, overwhelmed and looking so forward to that short fall break that was serving as a bright light at the end of the extremely dark tunnel I was stuck under.  Little did I know that I after that fall break, my life would never be the same. After that break the school I once considered home would become a place I once knew. After that break my set routines and organized life style would be turned completely upside down. After that break, a girl who once feared change and dreaded it, would be faced with perhaps the greatest change in her lifetime.

As I look back on the last 365 days, I feel perhaps every emotion ever described. This past year has been a whirlwind in all ways possible. And now here I am one year later, embracing the start of a new fall as the air gets crisp and the leaves start to fall around me.  I have my second chance at life, a start to my new career path and an opportunity to begin a new chapter.

I think that we can all learn something from the change of seasons. As the leaves change in the next few weeks and as we celebrate the wonderful autumn holidays, let your life start over and change the things you thought you once could not change. Do the things that once scared you. As I said, change is frightening but it is also rewarding. We must first welcome it into our lives.

There is an immense amount of beauty surrounding us each day, particularly in this season: the splendid shades of red, orange and yellow found in each falling leaf, the excitement on each child’s face as Halloween approaches and the feeling of a crisp autumn breeze. It is often so easy to get wrapped up in the stresses of exams at school, the overwhelming concept that another year is coming to an end in just a few short months, or the daunting facts of a jam-packed schedule. I try to remind myself each day how important it is to embrace the beauty instead of getting so wrapped up in ideas that seem critical. It turns out, most of the time these thoughts are actually insignificant in the scheme of life.

That overburdened girl sitting over all of her school books, crying over the thought of midterms just twelve months ago, did not realize how precious life can be. That girl who barely slept at all that week, was worried about getting an A on all of her exams more than she was worried about herself, did not realize how life can change right before you. If I could go back in time, I would remind that saddened girl that life is so much more than that exam the next morning. Life is too short to worry that much. That girl in the library really thought that those midterms were going to determine everything: her grade point average, her future career and the level of happiness she would reach in her lifetime. That girl in the library with saddened and wide eyes did not account at all for a huge change in her life that was about to occur.

I’ve decided to learn from the person I was exactly one year ago. I’ve decided to live life day to day despite the stresses that come along with looking forward in my planner, or thinking about the weeks to come. There is too much beauty around us that can be missed when we get wrapped up in the small things. Try not to miss it.

Life After Gold.

 

Since the Olympic Games in Rio came to a close just two weeks ago, the lives of hundreds of athletes have begun to return back to a sense of normalcy. They have returned home to lives with their friends and families and have taken a break from the extensive training which led up to the games the years prior. Consider the lives of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman. Five incredibly talented gymnasts who are also just regular young women. Just like myself they obsess over ice cream and French fries (of course when they aren’t training), they adore Zac Efron and they cannot stop giggling at one another.

I often wonder how their lives will ever be able to return to a sense of normal. Even though they are back home reunited with family and friends, these five girls are now considered a part of history. The “Final Five” were invited to attend the Video Music Awards on Sunday night and walked the red carpet with some of the most popular people in the music industry. Laurie Hernandez has moved on to compete in the fall season of Dancing with the Stars among a variety of other celebrities. These girls have captured the hearts of everyone viewing the Olympics including famous people from all different areas of the entertainment world. From this point on their lives are forever different but I often think that it is for the better. These girls are role models, public figures and celebrities in an inspiring way.

Simone, Gabby, Laurie, Madison and Aly are not just faces of talent and dedication, they are an inspiration to many all around the world. They inspire young and aspiring gymnasts to achieve their dreams but they also inspire the un-athletic like myself to continue working hard and work toward goals even that once seemed out of reach. After watching a variety of interviews and reading many articles about these gymnasts and their plans post Rio, I found myself relating in a way I did not even know possible.

These girls have had a whirlwind of a year. They spent so much time training, not just this past year, but their entire lives, for the moment when their names were announced on the Rio Olympic Podium and a shining gold medal was delicately placed around their necks. Everything came down to that moment. And then, just like that, all the waiting was over. The future was just beginning for these girls and a new and extremely fulfilling chapter was awaiting them.

This past year was exactly that, a whirlwind, for me. I spent almost half of this past year waiting for a life-saving call and a life-changing moment. I may not have gotten a gold medal placed around my neck, but I received a golden opportunity. An opportunity to live the rest of my life like an open book. Just as I wonder about the lives of the Final Five, I wonder about my own. With a new school year beginning for me in a week I know the rest of my life is beginning along with that. I often wonder if I will ever feel a sense of normalcy that I felt prior to this experience.

I know now that normal is overrated. No one lives a normal life. Our experiences shape us and alter us into different versions of ourselves. I am always going to think back to the experiences I have been through during the last ten months and I know I am coming out of this whirlwind stronger than ever before. I believe that whether the situations we encounter are small or large, they shape us into new people with new ways of thinking. Whether it is moving away to school, earning a new job, overcoming a major obstacle or achieving a dream, these milestones redefine what we once knew as normal.

If this year has taught me anything it is that there is a great amount of beauty in the unknown. I’ve learned that you must embrace every second, for you never know what may come next. There is no determining what will happen tomorrow, in the next hour or even in the next five minutes. Since we do not know what lies ahead we must always cherish all the good moments and cherish the obstacles that we have overcome to achieve those moments of gold. Why worry about how a wonderful moment will affect the days ahead when one can just embrace the moment in its glory? The shining moments in life are the moments that propel us forward into our future. And although the future may be full of unknown and sometimes scary moments, those moments are often the most beautiful.

 

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Finding Gold.

On July 23, 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia the women of the US Olympic Gymnastics team captured the first team gold in history. Also on this exact day, right around that very moment, I was welcomed onto this Earth. I often wonder if that is why I find such a deep passion in the Summer Olympics (particularly gymnastics) every four years when the games roll around.

I am perhaps the least athletic person to ever roam this Earth. I never joined a sports team and  rarely find enjoyment in watching sporting events. However; this past year more than ever before, I have become greatly invested in the Olympic Games. Even though I have yet to master the simple art of a cartwheel, gymnastics is by far my favorite event.  With every twist, flip and dismount I am captivated. I am so eager to watch the five brilliant, fabulous, artistic and talented women shine in the weeks that follow. There is something so thrilling in watching groups of incredibly gifted athletes represent our wonderful nation. But I find it even more thrilling watching these individuals live out their dreams.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a dream as “a strongly desired goal or purpose.” In this past year I have done a great amount of reflecting on dreams. I often felt discouraged that with everything going on with my health, I would not get a chance to live a normal life and work towards achieving my own dreams. My dreams went from thoughts about future careers to more serious matters like seeking good health and my sense of freedom again. I dreamt about the moment I would be released from the hospital and be able to live my life again. I am so blessed to be able to say that just a few months later, my dreams came true. I am home and healthy and because of so many amazing doctors, nurses and surgeons, my health is perfect. Because of my donor- my angel, my new heart is functioning flawlessly.

Realizing that I now have my whole life ahead of me, I was able to create new goals. I can now create new dreams each day to work toward and to smile about. I may not know what the future has in store, but I do know that I want to change the world with my message and my story. I may not be earning a gold medal for my nation this month, but I know I have words to share and I hope with all of my being that they can leave some sort of impact. This past year I found my own sense of gold. I found gold in the littlest things around me. I found gold in the love of my family, friends and community. I found gold in the kindness of strangers.

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Me just 6 weeks after my transplant living my dream of good health.

Watching the pure bliss and shine of someone else achieving their dreams fills me with joy and gratitude. I watch my older sister live her dream each time she picks up her flute and fills a room with her music. She has such a gift when it comes to performing and currently she is sharing this gift throughout Quebec, Canada. With every performance she impacts another life with her melodious sounds. I am honored to be her sister.

This weekend when the 2016 Summer Olympics kick off in Rio, with just the click of a button we have the power to watch hundreds of athletes live their dreams as they represent Team USA. There is something so inspiring in watching these athletes show the world their incredible skills after an insane amount of practice and sacrifice. These athletes are an inspiration to all and I am delighted to watch the next few weeks of events unravel.

As the wise and talented Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” My advice for everyone is to follow your dreams- as cliche as that may sound. Life is too short to have any regrets so one should always follow their heart. Whether it be a specific career path, a change in lifestyle or a specific passion, always do what makes you happy. Create your own personal gold medal.

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Twenty Things I’ve Learned In My (Almost) Twenty Years On This Earth.

I remember the thrill of counting down the days until the long awaited moment when July 23rd finally rolled around each year. I eagerly prepared a well thought out birthday list and anxiously planned my birthday party for that year. There was something so insanely thrilling about your birthday when you were young. As the years progress, birthdays become less thrilling and slowly morph into just another day of the year.

However; this year, my birthday will be more special than ever before. This year there is SO much to celebrate and to be thankful for. Because of a beautiful gift that I was given just three month ago, I am able to see experience another wonderful year with family and friends and all that this world has to offer. Because of my angel, I am able to celebrate my birthday with my family and friends at home this year compared to in a hospital room.

Reflecting back on this past year and all that I’ve learned, I have realized that I have gained a new outlook on life and learned new lessons I never once considered:

1.Surround yourself with good people.I’ve learned that life is too short to surround yourself with negativity and bad energy. I realized that the key to a healthy lifestyle and pure happiness is surrounding yourself with people who make you happy, who make you laugh and who love you. Nothing else matters.

2. There’s no place you’ll be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. This year proved to me that every moment is leading up to the life you are supposed to live. I’ve been taught that it may take a few tries to feel right, but the places and people you meet along the way are meant to be a part of your life.

3. Don’t take the small things for granted. Being away from home for many months and living in a hospital really exaggerated the idea to not take even the smallest things for granted. Now, ideas as simple as eating a meal at the dining room table with my family or sleeping in my own bed have become a major highlight of my day.The things that were once just a part of my everyday routine, now leave me feeling even more blessed each day.

4. Family is the most important thing. At the end of the day, my family is who got me through the worst times and who cheered for me during the best times. There’s nothing I will ever love more in this world and I know I am so blessed. I thank god everyday for the wonderful family I was given.

5. For every bad thing in the world there is a ton of good. It seems that the news that surrounds us each day is filled with tragedy and negativity. I try to view the world in an optimistic way, that for every act of hate practiced in the world, an unspoken act of good occurs as well. I experienced so many acts of kindness and love during the past months from strangers all around the world. Those acts of sincere generosity deserve some attention too.

6. People come into our lives for a reason. I’ve been shown overtime that everyone you meet, you meet for a reason. Whether is be the person you make small talk with in passing, the student you sat next to that day in class or the friend you’ve known forever, everyone has the power to leave an impact.

7. Be grateful for what you have. As cliche as it may sound, I’ve truly come to learn that you must appreciate all the things you have, from the littlest things to the most crucial things like the gift of life.

8. Change is scary but so good. Sometimes the things that provide the most fear, end up changing our lives. Although change can be scary, it is so often eye opening and life changing in ways you could never imagine. Change used to always be my biggest fear, but i’ve learned to embrace it and love it for it brings such marvelous new ideas.

9. Do what makes you happy. It is as simple as that. Life is too short to do anything that doesn’t put the biggest smile on your face.

10. Pursue what you love. Find a passion and embrace it. At the end of the day money is irrelevant, for if you are doing what you love you will feel rich and fulfilled.

11. Erase all toxicity from your life. As I said before, there is no need to surround yourself with negativity. Ignore the people who ignore you and make time for the ones you love and who love you in return.

12. Think of yourself every now and then. I have a terrible habit of putting others before myself which can often be a terrible flaw. It is unhealthy to never think of yourself. It is important to put yourself first every now and then in order to seek pure happiness.

13. Be kind to others. It is as simple as wearing a smile, holding a door and being the rainbow in someone’s cloud.

14. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Tell your loved ones you love them. Never go to sleep angry. Hug those you love. Tomorrow is not guaranteed so why waste a day on anger, hate and negativity?

15. Treat yourself. Sometimes we all just need a little retail therapy or an extra scoop of ice cream for dessert. To be honest, during my roughest days in the hospital buying some new clothes on line most definitely always made me feel better.

16. Everyone has their own struggles. By looking at someone you can’t tell what scars they hide, what obstacles they are going through or what burdens they may carry. Love everyone and be kind.

17. Just Keep Swimming. A wise little blue fish once taught me this and it is perhaps the most relevant life lesson one can carry with them. When life is tough just keep swimming.

18. Watch that extra episode of Netflix. Sometimes we all need a little escape from reality. Instead of feeling guilty when pressing “continue watching” I have learned to allow myself to relax every once and awhile and laugh at my favorite show or cry at my favorite movie.

19. Do something each day that scares you. I’ve faced more fears recently than I even knew possible. I never realized how fulfilling it can be and how much joy can be added to life after overcoming something that once scared you.

20. Start each day with a grateful heart. Wake up each day and thank God that you were given another day. Although it can be a struggle each morning to get out of bed and face reality, there is nothing I enjoy more than knowing that I have another day to live a beautiful life.

This birthday when I blow out my twenty candles (plus one for good luck) I will be thinking of my donor and their family. There aren’t enough words in the world to describe how blessed and grateful I feel. I was given another year to leave my mark on the world and live each day to its full capacity. What better gift could one ask for? I hope with everything inside of me and all the lessons I’ve learned that this next year I can make my angel proud and do my new and beautiful heart justice.