As a child, anxiety and stress were constant companions for Annemarie Ward — and not because of an overactive imagination. In her case, the fear was very real.
“When I was 7 years old, I had my first heart attack,” Annie said. “It was out of nowhere. It was so abrupt, traumatic and just a stressful time.”
Annie was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. Despite frequent monitoring, she went on to suffer at least six more heart attacks during the years that followed. “There was no aerobic activity,” Annie said. “I couldn’t do any kind of strenuous exercise. No sports. I couldn’t walk for long periods of time. I couldn’t be alone.”
Attempts at a normal life were met with disappointment. Annie gave dance a try as teenager, but she ended up leaving her recital on a stretcher. As a college student, she hit a breaking point when she had a heart attack as she was walking to class. “I remember sitting by the fountain on campus alone at night crying,” Annie said. “I had pretty much conceded that I was always going to be on the sidelines. It was like I had been robbed of everything – my hopes, my dreams.”
Not long after that low point, Annie received hopeful news. After a year on the transplant waiting list, a match came through. Waiting on the operating room table, Annie felt a new sensation: peace.
The heart transplant was a success, but doctors were stunned that Annie had survived for so long. Once removed, her heart weighed in at 6 pounds. The average heart is just under 1 pound.
Annie’s recovery was challenging, but things got easier over time. Now, at 28, her life is better than she could have imagined 10 years ago. “I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been,” Annie said. “Because of the match I could do things like go to school, exercise, hike huge mountains! I’m excited to see where I can go, being happy and healthy.”
After the transplant Annie received a letter from her donor family, and she wrote back. They have since developed a close relationship. “If I got married tomorrow, they’d be at my wedding,” Annie said. “I call my donor’s mom my donor mom. When we talk to each other I say, ‘hey momma.’ We’ve gone on trips together. I’ve gained another family.”
Annie recently earned her master’s degree in social work. She now hopes to pay it forward by helping other transplant recipients. “I’m so thankful, but there have been overwhelming feelings of guilt,” she said. One key issue is the pressure to live up to her donor’s legacy. “It is important to have good mental health and emotional support. I want to be raw and real to show other recipients that what they are going through, these feelings, get better over time.”