Celebrated worldwide in various traditions, Valentine’s Day is a holiday focused on expressing love and affection, and is almost exclusively represented by one ubiquitous symbol: a heart.
The depiction of a heart can mean many things to many different people; to Cindy Kehl it is a multi-faceted representation of life, loss, and love.
Cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes weakening of the heart muscle, is prevalent in Cindy’s family. The condition claimed the lives of Cindy’s grandmother, mother, and brother. In 1991 her sister was placed on the transplant waiting list, and when a heart became available Cindy flew down to be at her sister’s side through the recovery process.
“I learned more in that month about organ donation and heart transplants than I ever thought I would need to know,” Cindy said. “Yet so little did I really know.”
As her sister gained her strength back Cindy flew back home to Washington state, with a hopelessly optimistic “it will never happen to me” mentality. Working as a special needs pre-school teacher and being a single mother of two boys Cindy just didn’t have time to be sick. Little did she know, however, that everything was about to change.
In July 1992 she began to feel things that “were just not right”. Groceries got heavier; stairs got longer; menial tasks became arduous; eventually, it took all of Cindy’s energy just to hold her family together. After a yearlong series of hospital visits, she settled in to what would be her new home at the University of Washington Medical Center, and was placed on the transplant waiting list for a new heart.
“I celebrated my 39 birthday there. Would I see age 40?” Cindy recalls thinking, “I knew that my sister had waited nine months for her life saving transplant so I had no idea what my journey would be like.”
Cindy wouldn’t wait long. On September 18, 1993 while eagerly anticipating a visit from her boys, she was delivered the news that they had found a heart. Just hours later, she was wheeled into surgery with friends and family by her side, and nine months later Cindy headed home with a new, positive, outlook on life.
“A new life awaited me! Organ donation had given me not only life, but the opportunity to get on with living again,” said Cindy “But even in that moment…I realized that some unknown family’s life had also changed dramatically. How could I ever say thank you enough?”
With her second chance at life Cindy realized that she had to give back. She began advocating for organ donation within her community by sharing her story at civic groups and community gatherings. It was in this advocacy work that life would, again, bring about an unexpected matter of the heart; only this one wasn’t clinical.
While volunteering at a community Rotary meeting, Cindy shared her story just as she would at any event, however, unbeknownst to her, the story of her second chance at life was and providing a sense of closure to one listener in the midst of his own donation journey.
Not long before attending that particular Rotary meeting, Rick’s life had changed dramatically through the unexpected, and tragic, death of his wife. The one thing that had helped him cope was the legacy his wife left behind through her gift of organ donation.
Today, nearly 20 years later and happily married, Rick and Cindy Kehl spend Valentine’s Day together celebrating their love, and the unexpected circumstances that united them.
“What I have learned and am reminded of frequently is that life is fleeting, and you must truly embrace every moment. Hang on to the joy, even when times are difficult. Life is precious.”