Woman’s heart, spirit beat on in transplant recipient
By Cynthia Wolf For Sun-Times Media August 5, 2014 11:29AM
Gift of Hope President and CEO J. Kevin Cmunt (left) talks with Arthur McIntosh, husband of heart recipient Melody McIntosh, while the donor's father, Jeffrey Swart, shares a smile with another Gift of Hope representative. Gift of Hope coordinated the meeting between the donor and recipient families. | Cynthia Wolf/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 7, 2014 6:14AM
Eleven-year-old Vance Swart wrapped his arms around his father’s waist, hugging him tightly.
His dad, Jeff Swart, had begun to tear up and choke slightly on his words as he described his beautiful 20-year-old daughter, Ashley, who died without warning one late September day in 2013.
“She was the most beautiful thing. I just …” said Jeff Swart, before his voice trailed off. “She was absolutely great. That’s it.”
Swart, of Cedar Lake, was in a room full of doctors, nurses, organ donation advocates, relatives and one particularly significant presence, his daughter’s heart, beating within the chest of 41-year-old Melody McIntosh of Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Illinois.
“She is my hero,” McIntosh said of Ashley Swart, a registered organ donor who died a couple of days after suffering a brain aneurysm at a friend’s house on Sept. 25, 2013.
“She never knew me, but I know her,” McIntosh said during a gathering Monday at Condell Hospital in Libertyville, Illinois. “And I am going to live every day of my life honoring her memory. Thank you so much, Swart family. I really love you.”
McIntosh and her husband, Arthur, attended the gathering along with Swart family members who traveled from Indiana to honor the life and gift of Ashley Swart and to also promote organ donation.
“I celebrated my 40th birthday in here, unconscious, on a ventilator,” McIntosh said before the formal presentation. “On Sept. 29, 2012, my husband was approached about donating my organs.
“A year later, on Sept. 29, 2013, I received the biggest gift I could get from the most beautiful girl.”
McIntosh, a Veterans Administration hospital administrator whose health had deteriorated after a failed mitral valve repair surgery, suffered a heart attack and landed in the Condell Intensive Care Unit in the fall of 2012. That December, she was fitted with a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.
“The doctors said you will have this [device] for the rest of your natural life, unless you receive a transplant,” Melody McIntosh said. “It was hard. It’s no guarantee, and there are so many variables.”
McIntosh was placed on the transplant waiting list, where many perish before an organ that is a match becomes available. According to giftofhope.org, more than 300 people registered for transplants in Illinois will die this year, and roughly 7,000 will die nationwide.
On Sept. 28, 2013, McIntosh received the call that a match was found. And on Sept. 29, 2013, her 41st birthday and one year after her husband had been told her situation was so dire that he should contact loved ones, she received the gift of Ashley’s heart.
Through the Gift of Hope organization, Swart’s family reached out to the McIntoshes, and they recently met in advance of Monday’s gathering.
The Swarts and their cousins, the Fields, wept quietly as McIntosh addressed the room. Later, 15-year-old Wyatt Fields said he never will forget his cousin’s laugh.
“Most of the time, it was funnier than the joke,” he said.
“It was distinctive,” added Wyatt’s brother, Cody. “You could be in a room with 100 people and you’d know it was her.”
Ashley’s 17-year-old brother, Jeffrey, said one day his sister was a bright sophomore at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond. And the next she was gone.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “I don’t know if it makes it easier, but meeting Melody was nice.”
Ashley’s mother, Kelly Swart, said nothing can erase the terrible ache of losing her only daughter and eldest child. But she is glad to know that her daughter’s heart beats on in someone who so cherishes the gift.
“We love Melody. We really do,” she said through tears. “She’s so thankful and so grateful and really deserving of it.”