"A Major Medical Crisis Led Me to My Best Friend"
Try to imagine that your heart is working at just 12 percent of its capacity, you're trapped in a hospital away from your family, and the thing that will save you—an entirely new heart—will only come your way if someone with a healthy one dies. Then imagine spending most of those long, fraught days waiting alone. Terrifying, right? What you'd need: a friend whotrulygets what you're going through.
Niki Glass and Karen Tompkins had considered themselves healthy—Karen, a mom of four (ages 16 through 31), even walked eight miles every day. But the day Niki's three kids, ages 17, 13, and 11, started school last year, she began feeling short of breath. "I sent them off, went to the hospital, and never came home," she says. Her heart failing, she was admitted to Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital and placed on the transplant list. "My kids would call me every day before school. I couldn't cry—I had to keep it together— but I wasn't there to help them," says Niki, who also has four stepkids. Three months later, Karen, with the same diagnosis, moved to the cardiac floor. It was a dark time: "I had to spend Thanksgiving in the hospital," she says.
As the lonely days wore on, the nurses urged the two to get together. "We were both event planners, we both have lots of kids, we both loveEmpire," Karen says. But Niki was reluctant: "I'd been on the transplant list for months and had seen people come and go. I didn't want to get attached."
But when they finally did meet, Niki felt an instant connection. They started walking the corridors to stave off the blood clots that can form during bed rest and shuffled down to the hospital lobby for ice cream, wearing masks and pulling their IV drips. "The cardiac floor can be depressing. But when we were together, we were just two friends going out," Niki says. And more: "We shared our fears." Karen adds, "Waiting for a heart feels like a death sentence. Plus, someone has to die for you to live, so you have to deal with the mental gymnastics ofthat." They supported each other as they were forced to miss out on life's little joyful moments: As Niki's son got ready for his homecoming dance, they followed along on her iPad. When Karen's fourth grandchild was born, she watched on FaceTime and celebrated with Niki.
Karen was matched with a heart before the end of the year. She immediately went to Niki's room in tears. "I don't know how to tell you this," she told her. "I love you so much. I don't want to leave you." But Niki felt only happiness. "I said, 'The heart that's made for you wasn't made for me,'" she remembers. When complications brought Karen back to the hospital, Niki sat vigil at her bedside—which is where her doctor came looking for her with big news: There was a heart for her too. "I jumped out of my bed, all these tubes still in me, and started screaming, 'Niki got a heart!'" Karen says.
By Valentine's Day, they were both home with their families. They talk constantly, and schedule their monthly checkups for the same day so they can catch up in person. When Niki got a job as a school lunchroom supervisor, Karen was one of the first people she called. Niki knew who would get how life-affirming it was to baby-step back into the workforce. And Karen did: "She's my girl," she says.
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