For heart transplant recipient Roxanne Watson, her second life is a love story.
That’s why she is keeping busy during Heart Month by appearing at a flurry of events in New York to sign up organ donors – even on Valentine’s Day, which is also National Donor Day.
“It’s my passion,” she told Women’s eNews in a phone interview, describing her dedication to organ-donor recruitment.
Watson, 61, of Nanuet, N.Y., has signed up more than 8,200 organ donors, including her son, actor Kellen Wingate, 33, since she got out of the hospital in late July 2010.
“Amazing,” Watson said, describing her life after her heart transplant. Since then, she’s been a guest on “Oprah” – where she met the family of her heart donor – and she’s gone to Fiji to compete in “This Is Your Life Change,” a reality TV show set to air in Australia sometime this spring.
Watson’s donor was U.S. Coast Guard Fireman Michael Bovill, who died at age 23 after a truck struck his motorcycle on the George Washington Bridge. Bovill, the fun-loving and mechanically gifted son of John and Jilayne Bovill of Schooley’s Mountain, New Jersey, signed an organ donor card before he died.
His parents said that even if he had not checked the organ donor box on his military ID, they would have donated his organs to help others and “as a way that Michael could live on,” Watson said.
To honor Bovill, Watson carries his portrait with her whenever she speaks about the urgent need for organ donors at schools, hospitals, naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens or events for LiveOnNY, a New York-based nonprofit that is the second-largest federally recognized organ procurement organization in the United States.
“Michael saved five lives,” she said. “A 7-year-old Spanish girl got a kidney, an 18-year-old black kid got his other kidney, a 42-year-old Jewish man got his lungs, a 62-year-old Chinese man got his liver and I got his heart. It’s such an international story. I always tell people: ‘We all match inside.'”
Watson dreams of starting her own nonprofit charity, which she plans to call Michael’s Heart, to honor his memory by “signing up as many people as possible to become organ donors.” She will meet soon with a Rockland Community College grants expert and people at the U.S. Small Business Administration to get advice on how to set up Michael’s Heart as a charity.
About 121,500 people are on the waiting list for an organ in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In that group, 22 people will die each day waiting for a donated organ. But there is hope: One donor can save up to eight lives.
When Watson speaks to African American audiences, she says she asks how many people in the room know someone on dialysis. “Lots of hands always go up,” she said. “And that’s one [way] you can help while you’re still alive.”
Of the more than 101,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney, about 34 percent are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Genetics and other factors make people of color – African Americans, Latinos and Asians – more vulnerable to heart disease and other illnesses that can lead to kidney failure.
Watson’s whirlwind pace as a volunteer mirrors the active life she led before she got sick. She started working in retail while going to college. At 33, she earned a degree in history from Columbia University, where her professors encouraged her to become a teacher. But she stayed in retail and moved up to become a manager of several stores. One of her favorite jobs was her last one – working for TJX Corp. as the general manager of an A.J. Wright store, which sold moderately priced clothing in New York.
As a store manager, she took great pride in the young people who worked for her. “Every Wednesday, I called the president of the company to tell him something fantastic that these little $6-an-hour kids had done,” she said. “People talk about inner-city kids. But these kids loved to work – and they made hardly any money at all.”
She was helping her “kids” unload a truck on a warm day in May 2006 when she got sick, feeling like she had sprained a muscle in her back. Weeks later, in June, she went to the hospital and learned that she had suffered “a typical silent heart attack.” That cut short her retail career.
By April 2010, Watson was so sick that she was short of breath and too weak to walk. She lost 60 pounds in less than six months, going down to 95 pounds. She had trouble breathing at night, so she would wake up and go out on her deck around 3 a.m. to “suck in the cold air” and look at the sky.
Her cardiologist, Dr. Jooyoung (Julia) Shin, “told me that my heart was failing. She said, ‘You’re going to need a heart.’ She put me in the hospital. I was there for 104 days – 78 days, waiting for a heart.”
Keeping Spirits Up
The nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx did everything they could to keep her from getting depressed.
“For my birthday, they got permission from the doctors to bring in my favorite food – shrimp from City Island,” Watson said.
That was on July 4, 2010. She had just turned 56.
The following week, on a Friday night, Watson got a call from Rachel Mindich, her transplant coordinator.
“She is Jewish, deeply religious, and when I saw she was calling, I said, ‘Rachel, you’re breaking the Sabbath for me.’ And she told me that she would do this only for me, saying, ‘We have your heart.’ It was a male, 180 pounds.”
The clatter of machinery came next as hospital technicians wheeled in a machine “to measure my heart and my chest cavity. That’s when I knew it was real.”
On July 16, 2010, Watson received Bovill’s heart.
“That’s my ‘heartaversary.’ I like to say that I’m a Cancer girl,” she said, referring to her astrological sign, “and I’ve got two birthdays in July.”
Nine days after her heart transplant, Watson went home. Thirteen days later, she donned a surgical mask and spoke at her first event to sign up organ donors.
A few months later, she began a frenzy of home renovation projects, installing a ’50s diner and two home theaters in her home in Nanuet. She learned later that Bovill had helped his father with construction work on their home. Watson’s home makeover was featured in December in the D.I.Y. section of www.PrettyHandyGirl.com, the website of a female general contractor.
Last fall, Dr. Shin told Watson that she had been selected to become a peer-support coordinator for WomenHeart , a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that helps women living with heart disease. The Bronx support group starts in March at Montefiore Medical Center. In the meantime, in addition to working on organ-donation awareness, Watson is talking to women about heart disease. The stakes are high: Every year, 398,086 women die of cardiovascular disease, which includes high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.