By Channon Hodge
On a brisk Sunday in November , Rita D. Strickland, 61, left a quilting conference in Connecticut, drove straight through thick traffic on the interstate, and arrived in time to speak in front of 30 or so congregants at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn.
As churchgoers finished coffee cake and cups of orange punch, Strickland recounted for them a story she has told anywhere she’s invited for the last three years. On April Fool’s Day, 2005, doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital gave her the heart of a 20-year-old girl.
Strickland suffered from cardiomyopathy, a weak heart disease. In 2005 she went into congestive heart failure and doctors put her on a transplant wait list. Almost eighteen people a day die while on these lists because of a national organ shortage. According to the city health office, only 1 out of 3 New Yorkers are registered donors. Further, those in the black community, like Strickland, often wait longer than whites because they represent a disproportionate one-third of the wait list according to the federal minority health office.
Strickland said she was blessed to receive her heart without a long wait. But she spent her days after recovery pouring through her bible and asking God why she was the one to go through this physical trauma and come out alive.
“Spiritually, he was not through with me, yet,” said Strickland. “He wanted to continue to have me be here to have some sort of affect on other people.”
At Emmanuel, Strickland wore bright colors, strings of beads that evoke her artistic side and a ‘Donate Life’ pin for the national organization that increases awareness for registration.
She said it is sometimes strange to her to walk around with someone else’s heart inside of her, but she discoveredthe heart is more than physical – it’s spiritual as well. Whenever, wherever she can, she shows up at events to remind people to take care of both to avoid the heart and kidney diseases that run rampant in women and the black community and lead to the high need for transplants. She also strives to dispel the myths associated with organ donation by opening a dialogue few feel comfortable bringing up on their own.
“In the bible it speaks about – to whom more is given more is expected,” said Strickland. “With that in mind, I’ve been going to share my story to let them know that this a living example of someone who benefited from an organ donation.”
Lisa Jackson, 53, attended the event at Emmanuel but knew Strickland’s story well before because they’d been friends for years. She said she and others close to Strickland were shocked years ago when Strickland’s health deteriorated so sharply and started looking more closely at their own health. Strickland was a nurse and nurse educator and was busy and active in the community and at her church and she didn’t appear to be sick, said Jackson.
“She was such a giving individual,” said Jackson. “Always there to support people, always sharing her information, sharing her knowledge.”
Strickland, who lives in Springfield, Queens, holds two masters degrees and a doctorate from Columbia University. She taught nursing at SUNY Downstate and Brookdale Hospital, and served on the board of the Black Nurses Association. Divorced with no children of her own, she acted as a guardian to her two nieces after her sister died of colon cancer.
In the mid 1990s, she became a healing touch practitioner and a Reiki Master and used energy and eastern philosophy to aid in healing in private sessions and in workshops at her long-time church, St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn.
Spiritually, Strickland was strong, but she suffered from high blood pressure and as it developed into disease, she eventually was told by doctors to stop working.
After Strickland’s transplant, she started on a medication regiment of 40 pills in the morning and 20 in the evening. One of her medications, intended to keep her body from rejecting her heart, contributed to her developing breast cancer. After a mastectomy in 2007, she is now in remission.
When she tried to explain how she dealt with these blows, Strickland said she was always independent, but now lets her friends and family support her more. In return, she wants to be an example of how you can move beyond a hard moment in your life.
“There are some days when I have my valley experience of depression,” she admitted. “But I do know that I will not stay there.”
Jackson said Strickland has slowed down, but is amazed at her dedication to her message. Although she understood her friend’s mantra, Jackson still had reservations about adding her name to a registry.
If something happens to her, Jackson said, she is afraid doctors won’t work hard to save her life but will use her organs to save someone else. She knows she’s supposed to be the priority, but still has fears because she said health providers have always treated different races with inequity.
Researchers at Howard University found this to be a big concern and deterrent to organ donation for blacks and they and other organizations work to open the dialogue in every community. The Brooklyn Chapter of the Links, Incorporated sponsored the event at Emmanuel that Sunday because they say the church is a safe place to bring up the gift of life.
Talking about it with friends and family was another difficulty for Jackson because she worries about their feelings. Last month, though, she came to a decision to tell her health care proxy she wanted to be a donor. She said she was inspired by her friendship with Strickland and went to a spiritual place in her heart.
“Basically, if someone had not thought to give of their heart, my friend Rita would not be here today,” said Jackson. “That made it real for me. And so, that’s all there is -– this is why I should become an organ donor.”
Today, Strickland takes fewer medications and dedicates her time to her friends, family, public engagements and artistic quilting,. She encourages others to quilt, because its relaxing benefits help in healing.
When she teaches quilting workshops or in other group situations, Strickland wears a mask as a precaution, because a simple cold can send her into a dangerous place. Her immune system is extremely weak, she said.
Her current physician, Dr. Bernadette Sheridan, 57, met Strickland 20 years ago when she was just a young resident in the intensive care unit at Brookdale Hospital. Strickland was then a firm but considerate head nurse, and she held much sway over operations, Sheridan said.
Both she and Jackson worry that Strickland still does too much when she tires easily and must be careful of her activity. But, Sheridan said Strickland knows when to take it slower and would never want her to accept a life of confinement, not that she would.
“Dr. Strickland is an unusual person in that she has a lot of human determination and perseverance and attitude,” said Sheridan. “And attitude has a lot to do with how your outcome is.”
Strickland said despite everything, she has a positive outlook on the future.
“I may last longer than some of my friends who don’t have any type of illness and I may leave out of here tomorrow,” said Strickland. “All I can do is live every day like it’s my last day, and maybe that’s why I try to do as many things as I can — to take full advantage of life.”
Story, as yet, unpublished. For publishing inquiries, please email channonhodge(AT)gmail.com