Tapestry52:44where the heart lives
Anne Marie Switzer was baptized and received her last rites at just two days old.
She was born with a congenital heart condition called transposition of the great vessels. Even after undergoing the life-saving surgery known as the Mustard procedure, she still faced many complications throughout her life.
At 50, she received the gift she had prayed for all her life: a new heart.
But soon after her heart transplant, something changed – something she couldn’t easily explain.
I know I love my family, but I don’t have that squishy feeling [anymore].-Anne Marie Switzer
Perhaps more importantly, Switzer says his romantic feelings aren’t the same anymore.
“I don’t know when I first realized it,” said Switzer, a native of Brampton, Ont. “I know I love my family, but I don’t get that squishy feeling [anymore].”
Thoughts and memories of her loved ones were warm and tingling, she said. Now they feel logical or factual, or cold.
“I love my husband, but I’m not always on Twitter anymore,” she added, referencing the butterflies in your stomach and love at first sight feeling depicted in the classic Disney movie Bambi.
“It’s definitely a loss…because I’m a heart person, I’m a love person, I’m a relationship person. I don’t know how many people have said to me, ‘You have such a big heart. ‘ And I miss it,” she said.
“Why don’t I feel this?
Although apparently rare, it is not an unheard-of phenomenon.
Some researchers believe that it is possible for donor organs to retain and even pass on the characteristics and experiences of its original owner to the new recipient, through a process known as cellular memory.
Dr. Michael McDonald, medical director of the Ajmera Heart Transplant Center at Toronto General Hospital, explains that the term generally refers to how the body develops immunity against disease.
“We all have cellular memory as part of our adaptive immune responses that protects us from disease, infection, cancer, and anything foreign,” he said.
In other words, it allows our body to remember how to fight diseases we have encountered before. Transplant medicine experts, however, work to ensure that the same response does not reject a new organ as a potentially dangerous foreign body.
“When I think of [the] strictly clinical function of an organ, I am… interested in: Does it do what the rest of the body tells it to do? Does it compress the blood around the body? Is it empty? Is the heart rate normal?” McDonald said.
“Beyond that, you know, it’s hard for me to say if there are other components to what a heart can offer, especially from a donor who isn’t native to the recipient. “
Some researchers, however, have taken the idea of what organs can store — and possibly pass on — even further.
In a 2019 review article published in Medical assumptionsDr. Mitchell Liester presented an idea that “memories of the donor’s life are stored in the cells of the heart of the donation and are then ‘remembered’ by the recipient after the transplant surgery”.
The evidence on this, however, remains inconclusive and highly controversial.
Dr. John Wallwork, former director of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) transplant service, says there’s no way a physical organ can change your personality, your memories or how you feel.
“Our culture sees the heart as the seat of life, of love, of the soul. There is no scientific basis for that,” he offered as an explanation.
A German study from 1992 interviewed 47 patients who had received an organ transplant and found that the majority of them did not experience any changes in their personality.
Fifteen percent said they experienced changes, but attributed it to the trauma of having had a life-threatening procedure. Six percent (three patients) said their personality had changed and attributed it to their new heart.
Although the numbers are small, Liester said reports of personality changes after heart transplants have been around for almost 50 years. But he added that “this phenomenon has not been well studied and is not well understood.”
He added that “neither the absence of an adequate explanatory model, nor the doubts about the existence of such changes, disprove the occurrence of this experience”.
A 2016 blog post from the University of Melbourne noted that many studies that have examined this phenomenon have been done with very small sample sizes, and sometimes with subjects chosen to support researcher bias.
And the discussion continues. In 2021, a paper offered a “hypothetical explanation” for what it called “cardiac memory transfer” from an organ donor to some heart transplant recipients, citing the 1992 German study among others.
That said, McDonald acknowledged that a heart transplant is “one of the most transformative experiences anyone can have.”
“We hear…a lot when we’re face-to-face with our patients about the different sensory and emotional, cognitive, and personal experiences they have after recovering from a transplant,” he said.
The memory of the change of heart
One of the most famous stories of the transplant recipient experience comes from the late Claire Sylvia. His 1997 memoir, A change of heartwas adapted into a 2002 film titled heart of a stranger.
After her heart-lung transplant, she wrote that she felt like “a second soul shared my body.” She experienced new desires, including an appetite for beer, junk food, and curvy blondes.
Five months after the operation, she dreamed of a tall young man named Tim L.
“We kiss, and it’s like the deepest breath I’ve ever taken. And I know that in that moment, we’ll be together forever,” Sylvia wrote.
“I woke up knowing – really knowing – that Tim L. was my donor and that parts of his mind and personality were now in me.”
She later discovered the identity of her donor through some details from her nurse, which she then used to find the obituary from her diary. Eventually, she located and visited Tim L.’s family. Their description of him matched the man she had seen in her dream.
Sylvia sought help beyond her doctors and consulted “open-minded scientists” who told her that “cellular memory” was the cause of her new appetites and memories.
where the heart lives
Since her transplant, Switzer has noticed other changes. For example, she went from not caring about the taste of pickles to resenting it on all of her burgers.
Switzer never met his donor. She was allowed to write a thank you letter to their family through the heart transplant clinic.
Still, she firmly believes that the changes she feels have something to do with her new heart.
Switzer has heard and considered the arguments – those that support and those that cast doubt on the strange phenomenon she says she has experienced.
Ultimately, she doesn’t believe anyone can truly talk about a heart transplant recipient’s experience except someone who has lived it.
“They can [only] talk about knowing, but they can’t talk about knowing unless they’ve had that experience,” she said.
Radio documentary written and produced by Mykella Van Cooten.