Say transplant recipients claim they sense traits, tastes of organ donors
For most of her life, the young woman hated sports.
And though she was born and raised in Tucson, she never liked Mexican food. She craved Italian and was a pasta junkie.
But three years ago, all that changed for Jaime Sherman, 28, when she underwent a heart transplant at University Medical Center, after battling a heart defect since birth.
“Now I love football, baseball, basketball. You name it, I follow it,” said Sherman, a psychology student at Arizona State University. “And Mexican food is by far my favorite.”
She’d heard similar stories – of people who get donor hearts, develop new and surprising tastes and traits, then trace them to the donor. It’s an eerie phenomenon that has triggered controversy and skepticism.
Could it be happening to her?
No scientific evidence exists to explain how characteristics of an organ donor might live on in the person who gets their organ. But theories and speculation abound, from the transforming power of beating a death sentence to the notion that the body’s cells store memory.
Some blame the toxic effects of potent transplant drugs and heavy anesthesia, while others cite the psychological trauma of knowing someone had to die to save a life.
But even the self-described skeptics admit there may be more to this than imagination, though they insist it happens to a minority of patients.
“It’s highly controversial, but I don’t exclude it completely,” said Dr. Jack G. Copeland, UMC’s chief of cardiothoracic surgery and head of the heart team that has performed more than 700 transplants in 25 years, including Sherman’s.
Bill Wohl was a Type-A, overweight, money-obsessed businessman pursuing a jet-setter life – until five years ago, when he got a new heart at UMC.
Today, at age 58, he works part time and spends most of his new- found energy winning speed and performance medals in swimming, cycling and track. It’s a passion matched only by the good he wants to do with his new charitable foundation.
And he surprises himself by crying when he hears Sade, a singer he’d never heard of – and a reaction unimaginable before his transplant.
For months after his February 2000 operation, Wohl was convinced he’d received the heart of some poor kid who died in a car accident.
“I was sure that was the scenario. No one tells you anything about your donor,” he said.
For years, efforts were made to keep secret the identities of organ donors, so emotionally explosive was losing one life to save another. But now, they can write letters to one another or to surviving family six months after the transplant. The letters are transferred through the Donor Network of Arizona.
“So one day, six months later, there’s the letter,” Wohl said. “OK, it says I’ve got the heart of a 36-year-old Hollywood stuntman. I looked at his picture – at this incredibly good-looking, super- fit, super-athletic guy – and I thought, are you kidding me? That’s whose heart I’ve got?”
Wohl’s donor was a man named Michael Brady – who used the stage name Brady Michaels during his career as a stuntman for Universal Studios.
Specializing in aerial skydiving stunts, Brady appeared in action films, TV shows and commercials for Chevy trucks and Burger King. On the day he died, Brady was in Benson, preparing for a stunt in which he’d parachute onto the top of a moving train for the UPN daredevil show “I Dare You.”
Climbing up the iron ladder on the side of the train, he accidentally fell, hitting his head and dying instantly.
“He was a very loving and caring son who loved God and cared about people &,” Brady’s parents wrote to Wohl, noting their son had done volunteer work with children and AIDS patients in California. “We fulfilled our son’s wishes to donate his organs.”
Wohl immediately responded and has since met the Brady family, becoming “like an uncle,” he said.
At their first meeting, Brady’s brother, Chris, brought a stethoscope and asked Wohl if he could place it on his chest.
“He said, ‘Would you mind? I want to connect with my brother one more time.’ So, of course, I said yes,” Wohl said.
It was Chris who told Wohl the stuntman had loved Sade.
“That’s when I said, ‘Whoa,’ ” Wohl said.
“Is there some sort of connection possible? I don’t know,” Wohl said. “Some people think I’ve become more sensitive because of the ordeal I’ve been through. Or is there a very real part of Mike – of who Mike was – living inside me now?”
Jaime Sherman understands.
When she met her donor’s family nearly two years ago, they kept staring at her, at first unable to speak.
“Finally, his mother said, ‘You look so much like him,’ ” she said.
That’s when she learned 29-year-old Scott Phillips – who died of a head injury after a fight at a Phoenix bar – was a sports fan who loved Mexican food. He played on several teams at Kansas State University and followed college and pro sports.
Sherman’s metamorphosis from nonfan to superfan occurred well before she knew anything about her donor, though her obsession with Kansas State began after she met his family.
She recently dreamed she met Scott, too. “I went up to thank him, and he said, ‘Jaime, I’m so happy for you.’ I feel quite close to him,” she said. “I know he was a wonderful guy.”
Well aware of the speculation that traits can transfer from organ donor to recipient, Sherman accepts the concept.
“I’m a psychology major, and my professors will tell you it’s all in your mind,” she said. “But the scientists, the psychologists – they don’t have someone else’s heart beating inside them. I do. I have a very strong faith in God. And I am willing to believe there are things we cannot explain.”
So are some other transplant recipients.
There is the ballet dancer, Claire Sylvia, who wrote the book “A Change of Heart” after her 1988 heart-lung transplant, when she developed unfamiliar cravings for beer, green peppers and chicken nuggets – foods she had disdained as a health-conscious dancer. After contacting her donor’s family, she learned these were the favorite foods of the young motorcyclist who became her donor.
There is the 8-year-old girl who got the heart of a 10-year-old murder victim, according to medical reports. Plagued by nightmares of the crime after her transplant, the girl used the images in her dreams to help locate and convict her donor’s killer.
No scientific explanation
Tales of post-transplant transformations have become the stuff of “medical jokes,” said Copeland.
“Fiction,” said Dr. Sharon Hunt, heart transplant surgeon at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “There is no science to explain such a thing.”
But Copeland does not entirely dismiss the notion.
“With any solid organ, you are transferring DNA from the donor to the recipient,” he said. “These are genes that relate not only to the specific organ, but to other systems as well, such as cerebral function. So there may be something to this thing that personalities can change.”
But Copeland stresses the huge change a transplant brings to a person’s life.
“They go from being a cardiac cripple, an invalid, to being a pretty active normal person again,” he said. “We’ve seen all kinds of effects from that kind of change – people turn athletic, they get divorced, they get married, they have kids. They tend to take one day at a time and live life to the fullest. Whether that could be confused with acquiring the habits of your donor, or whether this is a real phenomenon, we don’t know.”
Others blame the potent anti-rejection drugs and steroids transplant patients must take. Or the “hospital grapevine theory” that says patients may hear hospital staff talking about donors while anesthetized. Or the brain effects of anesthesia itself. Or sheer coincidence.
“The combination of the post-transplant drugs and the pre- transplant trauma of nearly dying is a very heavy hit, both physically and psychologically,” said Dr. John Schroeder, a Stanford cardiologist specializing in heart transplant research. People become a lot more emotional, they cry more easily, some even hear voices.
“Bottom line is, we don’t buy the idea the donor is somehow emerging in the recipient,” he said. “But it certainly is a mystery, and it’s hard to put it all up to coincidence.”
Perhaps most controversial is the theory of “cellular memory” or “systemic memory” – the idea that cells, or even atoms and molecules, contain the living being’s memory and energy, which are transferred in a donated organ.
Proposed by University of Arizona psychologists – who also have studied near-death experiences and spiritual mediums – the theory was developed after studying 10 heart transplant patients who reported donor-related changes, including a male UMC patient who got a woman’s heart, and soon was bothered by his new preference for the color pink and desire to wear perfumes.
“What happens to these patients is not just a personality change, but a targeted personality change,” said Dr. Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor and director of UA’s Human Energy Systems Laboratory.
“If this is the result of drugs, or stress, or coincidence, none of those would predict the specific patterns of information would match the donor.”
There is no way to determine how many patients actually experience this because many never learn anything about their donors.
But most medical professionals – and even many organ- transplant recipients – find such accounts somewhat fantastical.
“The heart is a pump and no more – it is not capable of emotional transfer,” said Patti Cook, 68, who got her donor heart at UMC in 1989, and is president of the New Heart Society, a statewide support group. “I’ve seen this stuff on TV, but I think some people need their 15 minutes of fame. I don’t think the idea holds credibility.”
It is the profound, all-encompassing gratitude to the donor – known or unknown – that may be at the root of this phenomenon, believes Nina Gibson, UMC’s patient No. 583, who was given her new heart five years ago.
She knows her donor was a 21-year-old male who broke his neck while riding on the back of a motorcycle after a night of partying. She has no interest in motorcycles or anything that might be linked to a healthy, adventurous young man.
“But his family gave all of his organs that night, and several people are alive today because they did, in the midst of incredible trauma,” said Gibson, 62, a psychologist who lives in Vail.
“The power of knowing somebody did that, and you are alive, is overwhelming. People have to make sense of that somehow, and they do it in very different ways,” Gibson said. “All I can tell you is that I have never met this family, but there is a bond I have with their son that you cannot understand until you are at death’s door.”
* Contact reporter Carla McClain at 806-7754 or [email protected].