There isn't a day that goes by that Shannon Kelly doesn't give silent thanks to the young man whose heart beats in her chest. When she is running, working with her dogs in agility drills -- even just to walking and trusting the blood that flows through her veins -- she can't take it for granted.
When she competed in a women's triathlon two years after getting her transplant, at age 39, it was a process of learning her heart could take it if she sprinted down the street ... and then continue to beat. Now, Kelly is preparing to compete in the 2011 Nautica New York City Triathlon as part of a relay team to raise money for the New York Organ Donor Network.
"It's a bit of a prayer for your donor and their family," Kelly said. "A way to honor them for their gift. In a way it's small, but it's profound. I think of my donor every day, and every time I run, I think of him and how amazing it is that his heart is in me."
It has been five years since she got her new heart. Long enough for Kelly to have some trouble remembering what it was like to be unable to climb a flight of stairs without running short of breath. Long enough to almost forget the disappointment when a walk in New York City was shortened by fatigue.
"That's the part that's amazing," said Kelly's husband of 13 years, Larry, "to be able to do anything when six years ago we couldn't go into the city and walk six blocks."
For 10 years, Kelly would sleep propped upright on pillows so her blood could circulate more easily as she slept. She has a congenital condition, which she didn't find out about until her mother, Vicki, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
The condition is marked by a thickened heart muscle, which makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. By the time of her mom's diagnosis, Kelly was 18, and after years of feeling like something wasn't right with her physically, she knew she had it, too.
Her mother got a new heart, but Kelly wasn't sick enough to get on the transplant list despite the fact that her life slowed down as she walked less, avoided stairs and seemed more a witness than a participant in a world many take for granted.
Despite her limitations, she got a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Chester, fell in love, got married and became a marketing developer and graphic designer. She and Larry even lived in Mexico City for a time before moving to Yonkers, just north of the Bronx.
But she could not help but notice her life was becoming more and more limited, and Larry was compensating for her physical shortcomings more and more. When they started agility training their dog, it was Larry who did all the physical interaction, as she cheered from the sideline.
Then, her congenital condition led to an emergency trip to the hospital. Kelly had congestive heart failure and her name was added to the list of people waiting for a new heart.
There are an estimated 110,000 people on waiting lists for an organ that will save their life. According to the New York Organ Donor Network statistics, 18 people die each day waiting. People can sign up to become an organ donor online.
It is difficult to describe all the ways a new heart changed Kelly's life. It was as if she were given a new life, and the habits of her past faded from memory like an old photograph. She and Larry now have three dogs to train, and Kelly takes her place on the course as well, guiding dogs around and through obstacles.
Still, the biggest hurdle was getting over a deeply ingrained reticence. Kelly had some trepidation about joining the relay team this year. Last summer after teammate John Acquaro asked, she initially agreed but then got intimidated. The New York City triathlon is the kind of event that draws elite athletes from all over the world, and Kelly still has a hard time seeing herself in that light.
"A lot of us don't take advantage of our health," said Acquaro, who will bike the 40K portion of Kelly's relay. "We're held back and a lot of it's mental -- we still feel like we're restricted."
But as she went to cheer on friends, she saw that the big-name triathlon wasn't just populated by fitness models in mirrored sunglasses, bounding confidently to the finish line. There were tall and short, big and small, old and young. People struggled and strained, each at their own pace, no one passing judgment.
"I had to just see that," Kelly said. "I had to see that there were normal people."
On transplant relay teams, recipients compete in the bike and run, while volunteers or family take part in the swim. It isn't recommended that people with compromised immune systems swim in the Hudson. Acquaro, who received a heart transplant in 2007 for the same condition Kelly had, said he is so impressed by the fact that Kelly already has competed in a full sprint triathlon.
"She's my hero," Acquaro said. "I was very, very impressed, to come from being that ill to compete like that. And she came in in the middle of the pack, that's no joke."
So, Kelly is training for the 10K portion she will run Sunday, and it's still daunting. The first triathlon was about proving something to herself, but this is about being a part of a community of people who have received an organ. What better way to express thanks for that gift than to fully use that gift?
"It doesn't matter if I walk five miles of it," Kelly said. "My teammates don't care about our time. It's just to do it."