When you spend your career telling stories, there is a tendency for details to blend or fade over time. Then there are stories that leave a mark in some way. The impression or lessons or vivid details remain branded in your mind like it was yesterday. One of my favorite storytelling opportunities came when I was working for Sentara and I met a charismatic young heart transplant recipient. Initially, she was significant to the organization because she was a milestone patient – the 300th heart transplant for the facility. But when I met her I quickly realized that she was significant for so many more important reasons.
Her story was remarkable then: young, active and very unlike the “typical” transplant patient, she thought she was sick with pneumonia and woke up in a hospital to learn that she needed a new heart. Her five-week stay had a happy ending in the form of a new heart and a new lease on life. When we met I was immediately struck by her overwhelmingly positive attitude, her gratitude for the staff and doctors who had seen her through this health crisis, and her thirst and appreciation for life. I remember watching her conduct media interviews from her hospital bed, talking about her resolve to make a difference with the second chance she had been given in life.
I also walked away from that encounter struck by how down to earth and comfortable it was to be around her. She would joke with the media and the staff. She lovingly poked fun at her surgeon’s hair and its resemblance to a cartoon character. She was a genuine person, and even in the face of such uncertainty she was radiating hope.
I came home that particular day with my own feelings of gratitude and humility. Meeting this person and hearing her story put so many things into perspective for me. I felt as though our chance meeting was a gift just for me. A reminder to appreciate this life and embrace all its struggles because even in your darkest times you can be a light to someone who needs it more. I came to realize that was her gift – not just for me – for anyone who interacted with her.
In the years that passed, I was blessed with several opportunities to revisit this story and talk with the patient, who went on to do exactly what she promised in her hospital bed. She became a model organ recipient, proving that life with a donated organ can be full and happy. Some of our follow-up stories had to do with her participating in a boot camp exercise program at the Virginia Beach oceanfront (at five a.m. no less), her visits with the hospital staff and physicians where she would distribute baked goods and share laughter and hugs, and even her career moves – all of which were centered around championing causes and helping others in her community. Her second chance at life was lived to its fullest.
But not every story can have a happy ending. I was very saddened to learn of her passing this week at only 35 years young. Her light shone bright and she accomplished more in her brief time than most of us. Her loss is, no doubt, felt throughout the community because she has personally touched so many lives. And while my heart is heavy, I continue to feel blessed to have known her and to have helped (in a very small way) to share her story. Her legacy of grace, ambition, and positivity will remain an inspiration to me and so many others. Rest in peace, Brooke Briggs. It was truly an honor to have known you.