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At Carolinas Medical Center last September, Heather Greene, center, meets for the first time, Patty and Paul Melvin, parents of her heart donor, Bridget Melvin.

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Originally published: 2014-02-22 16:29:52
Last modified: 2014-02-24 11:26:48

Heart to Heart

by Sherrie Norris

Heather Shoemake Greene of Deep Gap was 27 when she was diagnosed with heart failure.

Bridget Melvin, who lived in Mooresville, was 27 when she died from lupus-related complications.

In 2012, Greene, whose name had been placed on the heart transplant list, was anxiously waiting for "the call."
Melvin had decided to be an organ donor even before her illness was diagnosed.

On Feb. 21, 2012, after pleading with God the night before "to do something quick," Greene said she received the call; a heart was available.

Within hours, she was at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte for a heart transplant.

At the same time, the Melvin family was shocked that its daughter, sister and fiance, Bridget, did not survive what they thought would be a simple procedure.

On Feb. 22, Greene was taken to the transplant center, where, just one room away, Melvin's heart was being prepared for new life.

"To think that Bridget's heart never stopped beating has been a comfort to us," said her mother, Patty Melvin.

Not only did her daughter's heart continue to beat in the body of another young woman, Melvin said the opportunity to correspond with, and eventually meet Greene, was an amazing opportunity.

It happened on Sept., 7, 2013.

Overwhelming
Both Melvin and Greene, in separate interviews this week, used the word "overwhelming" to describe their face-to-face encounter.

"I didn't know what to expect," Melvin said. "But it wasn't someone so wonderful as Heather. She was so appreciative and had expressed that she had prayed for our family from the beginning. That meant so much to us."

"They were very kind," Greene said, who was accompanied by her husband, Kevin.

Bridget's parents, Paul and Patty, were joined by her sisters, Melissa and Pamela, Pam's husband and Bridget's fianc, Jarod.

The connection was "almost immediate," Greene said.

The suggested hour-long meeting lasted more than two hours.

"They brought me gifts," Greene said. "Patty had made me a photo album of Bridget's life, and they gave me a locket containing pictures of Bridget and her family."

Greene presented Patty with a bracelet that had a heart clasp with wings, and a pink pearl, in Bridget's memory.

"The Melvins told me so much about her," Greene said. "She was a beautiful redhead, a collegiate swimmer and had run a marathon three months before her death."

The meeting, arranged through Donate Life N.C., turned out better than both families imagined, they said.
"It brought me peace," Greene said. "They helped me realize that I didn't have to feel guilty anymore, that it was Bridget's choice."

The most difficult part of the gathering for both parties was returning to the transplant center.
"They had to relive the memories of what brought them there to begin with," Greene said. "I felt bad for them."

Patty Melvin called it "extremely traumatic, the only negative in the meeting."

Letters have been exchanged with the other organ recipients, Melvin said, "but Heather is the only one we have met."

Parallels
The Melvins had three daughters in three years; Bridget was the youngest and very close to her siblings.
Getting to know Heather "and to know that Bridgett was able to help her has helped us all," Melvin said.

 "It's the way that Bridget would've wanted it.  She was always there for others; she always saw the good in other people. Heather is the same kind of person."

Melvin feels "really fortunate that Heather wanted to meet us. She is so young and beautiful and such a nice person. Bridget loved children, so she would want Maddox to have his mother."

One of the most profound moments of their meeting, both agreed, was when a stethoscope was placed on Heather's chest.

"Hearing that heartbeat let us know Bridget's heart was still beating," Patty said. "That's the way she would have wanted it."

Bridget's decision to donate
Melvin will never forget the day that Bridget, having moved to North Carolina from their home in Charleston, W.Va., called to say that she had gotten her North Carolina driver's license.

"She was so excited and told me that she was also an organ donor," Melvin said.
 
Bridget had first come to North Carolina to attend Wingate University and stayed when she got a teaching job in Troutman. She was establishing her residency the day she got her license.

It was strange, Melvin said, that Bridget called to tell her about becoming a donor.

"I didn't want to talk about it and told her that, hopefully, we wouldn't have to worry about it," she said.

Bridget was diagnosed with systemic lupus in 2010 following college graduation. "We lost her 18 months later," Melvin said. "She was a beautiful, vibrant girl, so full of life. She loved teaching her little first-grade students and never missed a day of work. She and Jarod were planning to be married, but hadn't set a date," Melvin said.

Late in 2011, Bridget's white blood count was low; she was scheduled to see a specialist after Christmas. 
"It was unusual," her mother said, when Bridget called one day from school, said she had a headache and was going home. 

"Jarod took her to the emergency room that day," Melvin said. "It seemed strange that she would go to the ER with a headache. As it turned out, she had had a mini-stroke; the lupus had begun attacking the blood cells in her nervous system."

Following a seizure, Bridget was airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center.
 
"We were settling into the waiting room and figured, after a little procedure to drain some blood, that she would be fine," Melvin said. "The surgeon came in a short while later and told us it was massive -- and she was brain dead. They were not able to do surgery. To go from hearing that Bridget had a headache to 14 days later being told that she was gone, was unbelievable."

Teaming up
Since her death, Bridget's family teamed up with the Lupus Foundation in Charlotte to raise awareness and money for research.

"We have a team for her and we go there every year to try to raise money. People just don't realize how serious lupus is. It can attack any organ. Bridget never made it past her first flare-up," Melvin said.

Every day is a gift
In 2004, Greene was diagnosed with heart disease and told that a heart transplant would be inevitable.
Saturday was the two-year anniversary of her transplant.  

"I have returned to work full time and I'm living life to its fullest -- just like I promised Bridget's family, even before we met,"  Greene said. "Every new day is a gift. Every morning, when I wake up, I thank God for another day of life and I give him all the glory. The doctors put the heart in me, but they didn't make it beat. I am alive because of Bridget -- and my life is simply amazing. I don't want to miss anything. I am enjoying every minute I have with Kevin and our son, Maddox."

Greene said, "There's no way I could ever thank my family enough, and so many people for their love, prayers and support for what I've been through -- and Bridget's family for sharing her heart with me."

Greene now sees her cardiologist every six months, versus monthly, and continues daily antirejection medications, "which I will be doing forever.

"We definitely plan to keep a relationship gong," Melvin said. "We pray for Heather all the time and just wish she could've met Bridgett. They would've bonded so easily.

"Bridget would've picked Heather for her heart."