Photo Credit: Courtesy of NJ Sharing Network (Left-to-Right) Jill Szalony, her husband Alex Samuelson, and their three children, Grace, Benjamin and Jesse.  

Montclair, NJ.- By Gary Mignone

 This Thanksgiving will be a special time for Jill Szalony, 51, of Montclair, NJ. Jill, her husband Alex Samuelson, and their three children, Benjamin, 22, Grace, 20, and Jesse, 18, are celebrating the 5-year anniversary of Jill’s life-saving heart transplant. As the family joyfully counts their many blessings, Jill is also reflecting on the gift of life and the miracle of organ donation and transplantation.

In 2006, Jill’s health issues became a concern when she was diagnosed with atrial tachycardia. Her heart health grew progressively worse, and she reached end stage heart failure in 2015.

“I remember I felt fear and a growing sadness that I would not be able to see my children finish growing up,” said Jill. “Each moment and hug felt like it could be the last one. But I was determined not to give up, and we all held our breaths that a heart would come along.”

In the early morning of October 30, 2016, Jill and her family received ‘the call’ they had been praying for as a heart was available for her transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (NBI). The next day, Jill’s heart transplant was a success thanks to the NBI medical team and support from NJ Sharing Network, the nonprofit organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue for the nearly 4,000 New Jersey residents waiting for a transplant.

“I have a vague memory of two nurses telling me, ‘Congratulations! You have a beautiful new heart,’” said Jill. “As soon as I was able to speak, I asked to listen to my new heart. I spent days watching the normal EKG amazed at what a healthy heart could do. I kept making lists of all of the things I would be able to do now that I was healthy – even some mundane things like going to the grocery store by myself. When you are faced with dying, your goals shift and the simple things mean a lot.”

The first summer after her transplant, Jill joined her family biking on the Cape Cod Rail Trail for the first time in several years. “Moments like those are priceless,” said Jill. “Seeing the joy in their faces that I could finally be an active part of their lives was a beautiful thing!”