Because of a Second-Hand Heart

A few weeks ago, I made a video on TikTok about the story of how Emily and I went from being friends to getting engaged and then included a final bit about our last day together. I saw other people making similar “friends to more than friends” videos, and I just really wanted to make one of my own. I didn’t expect anyone to watch it, yet the post ended up getting millions of views.

A lot of people commented that they were sorry for my loss and how unfair it was that I didn’t get more time with her. However, several people made comments about the irony of our love story playing out after her heart transplant. Some people even went so far as to say that it almost seemed like God’s plan all along was to give her that extra time so she could experience love from me.

Although I definitely agree that divine intervention was at play in our entire relationship, I think Emily’s transplant gave her the opportunity to do many things. She got a second chance at life, and boy, she lived it to the fullest. It only seems fitting that today, a day that would have been her five-year heartiversary (yes, I’m going to keep using that word), we talk about all the things Emily did with those final years of her life.

Emily Hardin, MSW

Emily had dreams of helping others, and she planned to do that by becoming a social worker. Her plan was very detailed: she was going to obtain her bachelor’s degree, enroll in graduate school, earn her MSW, then set out to help the world. She was determined, and nothing was going to get in her way. She had just two semesters left when her heart made life extra complicated.

When Emily went into heart failure, she continued her studies. People would visit the hospital and find her writing papers, studying, or taking exams. She finished that fall semester even though she was incredibly sick. It was quite an accomplishment.

After the transplant, she had to take a semester off, but she went back to school full force that summer and worked hard to wrap up her degree. And, in December 2018, Emily walked across the stage and earned her bachelor’s degree.

It took time to take the GRE and apply for grad school. However, she didn’t let setbacks or challenges stop her. Eventually, she got into the MSW program at the University of Kentucky and started the program in the fall of 2020.

I had a front row seat the entire time she was in grad school. I watched her work so hard on every assignment while also working full-time (and at some points holding down two jobs). There were nights where she had to stay up until nearly midnight to collaborate with classmates on video assignments. There were nights where we sat on the couch and I edited one of her papers while she typed up another. And, there were times where she worked on assignments from her phone because she still wanted us to be able to go out.

However, I think the culminating moment of her entire time in grad school was when she hosted a workshop on how to help people who live with eating disorders. She spent weeks preparing — she wanted everything to be perfect. When the day finally came for her to host the workshop, I sat in one room to attend the workshop while she set up in another. I loved seeing her talk about one of her passions, and she provided amazing information. She did an incredible job, and I was so proud of her.

Finally, graduation day came in May. We made our way to Lexington, and she walked across the stage. Finally, one of her dreams came true — she was Emily Hardin, MSW.

One Inch At A Time

As I’ve mentioned in other posts and in some of the TikTok videos I’ve made since her death, Emily also loved dance. She loved it so much, in fact, that she decided to minor in dance while at MTSU earning her bachelor’s degree.

Although studying an art like dance while also earning a degree in social work is an accomplishment within itself, I still find it mind-blowing that Emily was able to completely choreograph and perform a solo dance less than a year after her transplant. The dance, which she titled “One Inch At A Time,” was all about eating disorder recovery (are you seeing how passionate she was about this topic?).

I wrote about the dance in a post about her love of dance, but this dance was such a huge part of her story after the transplant that I needed to mention it again.

Recovery and Growth

I know the transplant was a very emotional experience for Emily. When we first met the fall after, she was still working through a lot of it. Her relationship with her body was already complicated before the transplant, and for a while after, her eating disorder became quite loud. She also dealt with anxiety, depression, and very unmanaged OCD. Yet, there she was, in the same group therapy as me, trying to do the work.

From 2018 to 2022, I not only watched Emily make strides in her eating disorder recovery but actually learn to tune Karen (her eating disorder) out completely. It took several rounds at Renfrew and lots of hard work, but she did it. By the summer of 2022, she was down to just seeing her dietician once a month (and was actually discussing discharging completely at the end of the year), and she had moved into doing some pretty serious body image work with her outpatient therapist. I know she still experienced “bad body image days,” but she was very open about it with me, and she was always willing to challenge those thoughts — which was something she had previously struggled to do.

I loved seeing this version of Emily. We could go out to dinner without fear stopping her. She let go of her “sick clothes” and bought clothes that made her feel good. She confidently wore lingerie. Her eating disorder no longer controlled her life. She seemed genuinely happy.

However, she hadn’t just made strides in her eating disorder recovery — she’d also done tons of work related to her OCD as well. None of this hard work would have been possible without the transplant, and I know Emily was thankful that she could use her second chance at life to make it into the life she wanted, a life filled with joy.

My Favorite Love Story

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing any of this if Emily hadn’t received the transplant because, without that, Emily and I would have never met.

Obviously, Emily and I hit it off right away when we met in 2018. It took time for us to move from friendship into more than friends, but as soon as we did, things progressed quickly. I think part of that was because we already felt so comfortable with each other, but I think the other part of it can’t really be explained with words.

I know we all see those fairytale romance stories play out in movies and television shows or read about them in books. But really, the relationship Emily and I shared was its own version of that. It’s something that completely transcends everyday life and can’t be easily described. Yet, it’s my favorite love story because it’s everything I ever wanted and more.

Emily and I saw each other in a way very few people do. We accepted each other completely. We loved each other, flaws and all. We cheered each other on, we picked each other up, and we never left the other person’s side, no matter how dark and twisty life got. I’ve already talked a lot about our relationship, and I will continue to do so. But for today, I am just so thankful that our love story got to play out. I guess it was meant to be.

It Was All Thanks To Victor

Emily did so much in the almost five years she lived after the transplant. While all of that was 100% Emily, none of it would have been possible without another person’s selfless gift. Emily was able to earn a master’s degree, kick her eating disorder in the butt, and build an incredible life all because of a man named Victor and his family.

It’s funny, because from what we’ve learned about Victor, there are many parallels between him and Emily. I think that makes sense though, because you have to be a pretty incredible person if you’re willing to donate your organs and tissue to other people. It’s an act of courage. It requires you to look beyond yourself and say, “I want to help a total stranger if I can.” That’s not something everyone is willing to do, especially in our modern world.

I know that Emily remained thankful for Victor every single day of her life from December 23, 2017 until her final breath in the early hours of October 19, 2022. She looked for ways to thank Victor and honor him in everything she did. She cherished a scrapbook about him that his mother made. She carried him with her on both of her graduation caps. She maintained contact with his mom. She wanted to make sure we found a symbolic way to include Victor in our wedding and other major life events.

Because of Victor, Emily got to live out many of her dreams. And because of Victor, I had the honor of meeting Emily and building a beautiful life with her.

I will be thinking a lot about Emily today. But, I will also be thinking about Victor, because without that “second-hand heart” (Emily’s words, not mine), none of this would be possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s