Shelby Caban cherishes every moment of her life because she knows how easily she could have lost it.
Shortly after her 10th birthday, she was diagnosed with Restrictive Cardiomyopathy, meaning that the ventricles of her heart were too rigid to expand which made it difficult for her heart to pump blood. While some people who have this disease experience few to no symptoms, Shelby's case was so severe, it put her into end stage heart failure.
Framed pictures of Shelby (left) and her brother (right). Photo via Upworthy.
Even though she was just a child, when the doctors sat her down and explained her diagnosis, she understood how serious it was.
"I felt very sick, so the situation was very real to me even at such a young age," writes Shelby in an email.
She needed a heart transplant, but her condition was so dire, she wasn't allowed to wait for it in the comfort of her own home.
So Shelby's parents moved her into a room at the hospital which became her bedroom for the next 45 days.
In that room, she had nothing to do but wait, which brought up so many different emotions. While she was certainly scared, she never stopped being hopeful that a heart would eventually come to her — though that thought came with even more complicated feelings.
"I always thought about what my life would be like with someone else’s heart inside of me," writes Shelby. "Especially, knowing it would most likely be someone young. It made me sad that someone’s tragedy would ultimately be my blessing."
Finally, in early 2004, the Caban family got the news they'd been hoping for — Shelby had a heart coming to her.
The night she found out, Shelby just started crying uncontrollably. She was overwhelmed with relief, anxiety, and joy, but there were also pangs of grief for the 9-year-old girl whose heart she was going to receive.
Photo via Shelby Caban.
Shelby's transplant operation lasted somewhere between six to eight hours. Afterwards, she had to spend a couple weeks in the hospital, then another five months at home recuperating. She couldn't go outside during that time because the anti-rejection medications she was on suppressed her immune system, making her highly susceptible to infections.
After those months at home, when she was finally allowed to venture out, she initially had to wear a mask as an extra precaution. On top of all this, she was taking 32 pills a day, and was told she'd be on them for life. Needless to say, it was a huge life adjustment.
"You’d think receiving a heart is simple — get the heart, and move on with your life," remarks Shelby. "It’s not."
Shelby will always live a somewhat different life because of her heart transplant, but it's all worth it for her because she's still living it.
Today, she's training to become a Physician's Assistant and is in her last year of a Masters program. Her goal is to one day work in pediatrics and help other children get healthy. Getting to be on the other side of the patient's bed has been an amazing experience for her so far, and she's excited to see what lies ahead.
Photo via Shelby Caban.
However, not a day goes by that she doesn't think about the little girl who gave her a second chance at life.
"I have her picture framed right by my bed in my bedroom," she writes.
Shelby was able to speak to the girl's family about a year after her surgery, and thank them for the incredible gift they helped give her. And two years ago, she actually reconnected with the girl's sister, which has been very meaningful.
"They are incredible people, and being in contact with them makes me feel even closer to the little girl whose heart I now share."
Shelby wishes she could give the girl who saved her life a big hug and say 'thank you' over and over, although she knows that would never be enough to express how grateful she is.
What she can do, however, is tell her story to inspire others to become organ donors so that many more lives can be saved.
Photo via Shelby Caban.
For those who are on the fence about it, she stresses the importance of reading up on organ donation to help dispel any concerns they might have. There are lots of myths surrounding the process, including that you have to be in perfect health to be a donor. Rather than just believing what you've heard, Shelby wants everyone to take it upon themselves to get informed and make an educated decision.
"I had a heart transplant, I had cancer, AND I am also an organ donor," she writes.
On average, 20 people die everyday while waiting for an organ. However, just one organ donor can save up to eight lives like Shelby's. And donors aren't just saving lives of recipients — their donation has a huge impact on entire families as well.
Imagine, just by checking a box, you could give a future back to someone who might not have one otherwise. So what are you waiting for?
Learn more about organ donation at LiveOnNY.org