After having heart transplant surgery in June 2015, Alec Blotnick was determined to make the most of his second chance at life.
He launched his recovery six weeks after surgery by stepping onto a treadmill for the first time in years and taking a 10-minute walk at 1.5 miles per hour. Eight months after surgery, Blotnick picked up his golf clubs once again and won a gold medal at the Transplant Games of America, a festival and sporting event for organ transplant patients and living donors.
These days, Blotnick hits the links regularly and has doubled his pace on the treadmill without running out of breath or feeling run down — symptoms he suffered with for years due to congestive heart failure.
“I couldn’t do anything. Life was a total struggle,” Blotnick recalled Friday before a gathering to recognize National Donate Life Month and to mark the 45th year of the Miami Transplant Institute, a partnership between the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade’s public hospital network.
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While regular exercise has helped Blotnick to recover from transplant surgery, the Boca Raton resident believes a positive outlook is what makes him feel 20 years younger.
“I’m a very optimistic person,” said Blotnick, 67. “I always feel there’s something else I can do. Yes, I know, I’ve had a bit of bad luck. But I can get back on my feet.”
Blotnick was one of about two dozen organ transplant patients who gathered Friday at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami to celebrate their second chance at life. All of the patients received their life-saving surgeries at MTI, among the nation’s busiest organ transplant centers, where doctors perform about 450 transplant surgeries a year.
Among the patients gathered Friday at Jackson Memorial was Makinley Edwards, who turns 4 in June.
Makinley was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her liver at 2 months old. She received a transplant at MTI in February 2014, when she was 8 months old. Her parents, Michael and Nicole Edwards, said the experience opened their eyes to the need for more people to become organ donors and to learn about the process.
“We really didn’t know how important it was until we had to go through it first hand,” said Michael Edwards, a Miami-Dade County firefighter and paramedic. “Learning it while you’re going through it is tough because you're dealing with all the emotional aspects.”
Michael Edwards said they delayed choosing an organ transplant for Makinley in part because the family didn’t know much about organ transplants and donations.
“To put it simple, we were scared,” he said. “We were on the fence, and we wanted to hear what we wanted to hear … and then when it became necessary for her to receive an organ to live, it was a no-brainer. We’ve got to do this. Well guess what happened when we made that decision? We didn’t get a donor.”
Makinley waited less than three months before a matching donor was found in Arkansas. While some transplant patients can wait years for a matching organ donor, Edwards said even a few months was too long for them.
“There’s a problem with the donor pool. It’s just not large enough,” he said. “Every day that went by was another day we risked my daughter’s cancer spreading outside of her liver.”
Michael and Nicole Edwards are now organ donors, he said, and they make it a point to evangelize to friends and family about the need for more people to become donors.
For Erika Rolle, an assistant principal at M.A. Milam 5-8 Center in Hialeah, waiting nearly two years for a matching donor for her heart transplant was difficult but not dispiriting, she said.
“I never got depressed with my situation,” said Rolle, 46. “I was always adamant that I was going to be strong. And that’s what I was through my entire journey. I’d say I was a warrior, who always was determined to fight and win.”
Like many organ transplant recipients, Rolle said she does not know the identity of her donor. She said she has struggled to find the right words to express her gratitude in a letter to the donor’s family.
“The family is … amazing and obviously have been unselfish because I was able to get their loved one’s heart,” she said. “It’s a sensitive topic for me.”
For Blotnick of Boca Raton, the thought that he’s alive because of another person’s death has taken an emotional toll, he said.
Blotnick wrote a letter to the family. He never received a reply. But though the donor’s identity is protected, he’s fairly certain that he knows who it was. The man’s death was covered extensively by local media, he said, and the description in the news fit the details that doctors shared with Blotnick about his donor.
He even found a picture of the man and his family. “His face kept flashing in my mind,” he said. “It’s difficult.”
“When I found out about this, it was terribly emotional for me,” he added. “How could I be this lucky? What did I do to deserve this?”
Blotnick said he made a donation to a trust fund set up for the man’s wife and two children, and he’s holding out hope that one day he will get to meet the family and thank them personally for the gift of life.
“I never realized how important it is,” he said, “to be an organ donor.”