Stories of Hope: AJ Reyes

SONY DSCIn Pasadena, aboard the Donate Life Rose Parade Float on New Year’s Day 2014, Arthur Jovan “AJ” Reyes held both hands tightly to his chest, a show of gratitude to the man who gave him life, who gave him the heart that now beats in him.

Just a few years earlier, AJ wasn’t sure he would be alive much longer, much less be riding on a float in one of the largest and most-watched parades in the world. A rare viral infection had destroyed his own heart and he needed a transplant. Whether AJ lived or died became a waiting game. His own mother, a nurse and educator, was convinced AJ wasn’t going to make it; a mechanical heart was the only thing giving him a bit more time.

She was wrong. In November 2010, at the age of 25, AJ got the call that a heart had been found for him. “I was happy and excited for my second chance,” says AJ. “I didn’t want to be sick anymore and I knew there was a better life for me after transplant. But, I also understood tragedy just hit in someone else’s family. It was very bittersweet.”

Now, AJ isn’t wasting a beat of his donor’s heart. He trains for and runs half-marathons, something he didn’t know would ever be possible for him. He’s completed six so far.

“Once when I was running at mile 11, my friends asked why I was doing this,” AJ recalls. “I told them, ‘I’m doing it to honor my donor.’ I started tearing up. I don’t want this gift to be in vain.”

AJ and his family have met and regularly communicate with his donor’s family. The two families got together for the first time in September 2013, a day before the annual Donate Life Run/Walk held by the Donor Network West . AJ learned his donor was a father and loved racing motorcycles, fishing and hunting. He died a few days after he got into an accident; a driver had pulled out in front of his motorcycle. His decision to register as an organ donor saved five lives, including AJ’s.

“My life has been a complete 180 from where I was before my transplant. Before, I could hardly get out of bed and walk a flight of stairs. Now, I feel healthier than ever – exercising, working, enjoying life. I forgot what it felt like to be healthy after so many years of being sick with heart failure.”

AJ now works in hospital administration and as a CPR instructor while he works on a second degree; he already has a Bachelor’s Degree in Healthcare Administration from Sacramento State University. AJ also volunteers as a Donate Life Ambassador to raise awareness for organ and tissue donation, specifically in the Filipino community, his way of giving back for the gift he received.

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