SALT LAKE CITY — On March 17, 2016, Linda Karr did something very few people have done: She met her heart transplant donor. The experience was just as rare for her donor, Tammy Griffin. Griffin, with a new heart and lungs of her own from an anonymous donor, listened to her old heart beating inside Karr’s chest.
“It’s pretty weird that I donated my heart and I’m still alive. You never hear that,” Griffin, who lives in Portland, Oregon, told the Deseret News. “I got to save someone’s life and someone saved my life. And then I got to meet her. It’s weird and exciting to go through all that together.”
At Stanford Hospital in California six weeks earlier, the two strangers were part of a rare procedure called a “domino” heart transplant, where one patient gets a heart and lung transplant from a deceased donor and his or her healthy heart is donated to another patient in need of a transplant.
Griffin has cystic fibrosis, which made it difficult for her to breathe even just walking out to get the mail or taking a shower. She had one shrunken lung and one that was overexpanded and although her heart was healthy, it had been displaced by her lungs.
“Her heart was an innocent bystander pushed out of its normal position in the middle of the lungs as her right lung shrank and the left one expanded,” Joseph Woo, MD, Griffin's cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford Health Care said in an article for Stanford Medicine.
When Griffin heard that her heart was still functioning, she asked her doctors if she could donate it to someone else who might need it. The doctors agreed and, after 30 months of waiting, Karr received Griffin's heart.
“We had a similar body frame size, even though she’s a whole head shorter than me. Our blood type was an exact match,” Karr said. “I just felt fortunate that the situation sort of miraculously transpired with three people's lives all aligning at the same time.”
In 2016 before the transplant, narrative painter Anne Ruth Isaacson worked with Karr at a biotech company in Northern California. She had no idea that her friend had such a serious heart condition until one day when they went to cross the street together and Karr explained that the walk would be difficult for her.
“I was a very private person, so I didn’t even tell people at my work that I had a heart condition. They didn’t realize that I was really struggling to get through every day,” Karr said.
When Isaacson found out her friend needed a heart, she went to her rabbi and offered a prayer. Soon after, she learned her friend got a new heart.
“It probably had nothing to do with my prayer, but it felt really personal to me,” Isaacson said.
Learning more about Karr's domino heart transplant, the artist felt inspired to act.
“I just wanted to paint it,” Isaacson said. “As a painter, you have a two-dimensional surface and you want to create something that tells a story without any words. What I’m trying to get across is the special connection that now exists between these two strangers.”
Karr and Griffin agreed to pose for Isaacson in her studio, who took pictures of the pair and shot studies of their face and hands in 2016. As her idea for the painting grew, Isaacson also included four more subjects in the background: the doctors and surgeons that made this remarkable surgery possible.
The now-completed piece is a large oil painting on canvas. Isaacson explained her style as representational but not exact; the painter tries to tell a whole story in a single frame.
“You have to think about it a little bit. When you see the painting, I think you’ll see that I captured how I see the people. It’s not just about their faces,” Isaacson said.
Isaacson, who moved from California to Salt Lake City in September 2017, is now ready to share her work with others. The painting will be unveiled between 4 and 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 3, at the Michael Berry Gallery in downtown Salt Lake, with Karr in attendance.
Isaacson timed the unveiling to coincide with the Transplant Games of America, which will be held in Utah Aug. 2-7. Karr, who hasn't seen the finished work, will be traveling from her home in Berkeley to participate in this multisport national competition with teams from every state and Puerto Rico. The purpose of the games is "to show the world that transplantation is a treatment that does indeed work," according to transplantgamesofamerica.org.
Karr, who is on the team representing Northern California, is competing in the 20 km cycling race — her first bike race ever — and on the coed basketball team, as well as doing a 5K run/walk with her husband that’s open to the public.
“I was planning to go just this one time, but who knows. It could be fun!” Karr said.
Griffin and Karr are both back to living the active lifestyles they loved and missed when they were sick, traveling, hiking and visiting family. They still stay in touch over text and email, meeting up now and again when Griffin travels from her home in Portland to get a check up at Stanford Hospital.
And both of them have the same hope for their story: that other people will realize that organ donations can save lives.
“Someone’s organs can save up to seven other lives and there’s still a great demand and need for the organs,” Karr said.
“I hope that the people in the (Transplant Games) audience choose to be an organ donor and to help someone,” Griffin said. “I was on the donor list and I never thought I would be able to donate anything to anyone, but I did. Give somebody else a chance.”