Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
“Dying to Live: The Extraordinary Story of a Heart Transplant Patient”
“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
– A quote from Nelson Mandela
[Click on this link to listen to the podcast]
Dying to Live is a small but extraordinary book written by an even more extraordinary woman named Gaea Shaw. It is the auto biographical story of a woman who underwent heart transplantation as a result of a gene that caused her to have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal heart defect.
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Gaea Shaw’s story is important in that it touches upon several important mental health issues. Among these issues are:
How do you learn to deal with loss and grieving?
How do you deal with the possibility of immediate death in the midst of life?
How do you survive after experiencing depression and mental anguish as a result of a combination of grief, and being informed that you have a heart condition that can result in your death?
How do you cope with the amount of anxiety and panic that is experienced as a result of all of the above factors?
In her book, Gaea does not deny the fact that she experienced depression, misery, fear, anxiety and even panic on the road to the heart transplant. Rather, she explains how she learned to deal with and quiet those emotions.
You see, Gaea did not “merely” face her own mortality as a result of her heart condition but suffered the loss of her cousin, Josh, who was only twenty seven years old at the time of his death, her sister Joanne and her mother, who died of Parkinson’s disease. All of this happened prior to her own heart transplant surgery and would have given many people reason to feel totally discourage and want to die. All of these relatives and more had the same defective gene as Gaea. Even Gaea’s mother, who died of Parkinson’s, suffered from the same defective gene which can express itself either as a heart condition or Parkinson’s. In point of fact, Gaea’s uncle, Mel, underwent a heart transplant for the same hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Among the many things that this courageous woman learned is the importance of giving up the myth of self sufficiency and accepting the help and support of others. Up until her medical crisis, Gaea was an extremely self sufficient woman. She worked as a school teacher and depended on herself to manage her life. Like so many of us Americans, she valued her individuality and independence greatly and viewed asking for help as a weakness. Perhaps that is why she married her husband, Barry, so late in life. Knowing Barry, I realize that he was also an extremely independent and individualistic American. Yet, Gaea had to open herself up to Barry’s help in a way she never imagined before as she went through the surgery and recovery. In addition, she had to turn to friends and family for help with their adopted daughter, Sarah, and for financial help with hospital and medical costs that were out of sight.
Of course Gaea had to say goodbye to her sick heart and open herself up to a new heart, which was transplanted into her after the tragic death of a 13 year old boy named Chris. Not only did she embrace his heart but the boy’s family and his memory, as well.
It is important to point out that Gaea’s story does not finish with a “happily ever after” fairy tale ending. Nine years after her surgery she leads a vigorous and active life. However, she does face rejection and the need for defibrillation from time to time. This procedure is painful and, of course, anxiety provoking for Gaea, her family and her friends.
Gaea points out in the introduction to her book, “Not everyone faces a heart transplant. But most people face challenges, heartbreak, fear, anger, loneliness, frustration and adversity in one form or another.” *(from p.xiii of the introduction). However, Gaea concludes that “life can be fulfilling regardless of circumstances. We have choices; we can act”
Please listen to the Podcast Interview of Gaea Shaw about what it means to “Die to Live.”
Dying to live is available on the Internet at: barnes and noble (bn.com) or amazon (amazon.com) or at her web site: gaeashaw.com
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