Like many college students, Carrie Wolf, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has debt.
But unlike those with mere bank loans, her obligation is more subtle. She's paying off a debt of gratitude.
Wolf got a new heart when she was 8 years old. The donor was an anonymous 10-year-old girl from Atlanta who died after a brain aneurysm. As many as seven children might have been saved by the girl's donated organs, Wolf said.
"She's part of my family," Wolf said. "And I feel like I'm part of her family, too."
When she was younger, Wolf said, she didn't think much about her transplant. Now, as an introspective young adult, she wonders about the little girl in Atlanta who didn't live to see her 11th birthday.
"As I get older, I think more and more about contacting her family," said Wolf, who is studying to become an elementary-school counselor in part because of her childhood health problems.
Wolf, a graduate of Girls Preparatory School, said she tries to repay her debt by working as an organ-donation advocate. She gives speeches and works at public events -- such as Riverbend -- to encourage people to sign the organ donation release on their drivers' licenses.
Today, the only visible reminder of her transplant is a small chest scar, she said. She takes two heart pills every day. She has a yearly biopsy to check her heart health, and she has been told she might need another transplant someday.
Wolf was 7 years old when her parents discovered her congestive heart failure. At first, her symptoms were hard to evaluate, she said.
"I was underweight for my age," she said. "My lips turned blue when I was cold. I had low energy. I got sick a lot."
HOW TO BECOME AN ORGAN DONOR:
You can sign up at the Tennessee Department of Safety when you apply for, or renew, your driver's license. You can also join the Donate Life Tennessee Organ & Tissue Donor Registry online anytime by visiting www.TnDonorRegistry.org.
On a routine visit to the pediatrician in her hometown in Canton, Ohio, a chest X-ray revealed her heart problem, Wolf explained. She needed a transplant quickly. Soon, she arrived at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., for heart-transplant surgery.
Her memories are foggy of her time in the hospital, but she recalls eating lots of doughnuts during her recovery. Her parents were told her surgery went well and her future looked bright.
Over time, her physical development got back on track, too. Her family eventually moved to Cleveland, Tenn. At GPS, she was a dancer and volleyball player.
"If I ever get to talk to the donor family, I don't know if I can put into words what this has meant to my family," she said. "The best way to show them I'm thankful is to live a happy, healthy, purposeful life.
"And part of that is sharing my story."
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...