What it’s like to get a new heart for your 18th birthday

During his senior year of high school, D’Sean Bray learned he needed a new heart—fast.
D'Sean Bray
Photograph by John-Robert Ward II

I can’t explain it, but something inside me told me not to play football my senior year. I had been playing sports all my life. I was a cornerback for Langston Hughes High for three years. I felt fine. But I came to an agreement with myself not to go out for the team that fall.

A few months later, around Christmas, I started feeling weak. I couldn’t move, and I was vomiting. I went to the hospital, and chest X-rays showed my heart was enlarged because of a congenital defect. They told me I needed a transplant ASAP. Within 10 minutes they transferred me to Children’s Healthcare at Egleston, where I was put on the waiting list for a donor. That was nerve-wracking. All you can do is pray. I was scared for myself, scared for my family.

While I was waiting, doctors performed two surgeries to install a VAD (ventricular assist device), essentially a rechargeable prosthetic heart with a wire running through my abdomen. I could plug myself into the wall every four to five days. Even so, my heart was getting weaker by the day.

While the anesthesia was wearing off after the first surgery, I checked my phone and saw an email from the University of Alabama saying I’d been accepted. I thought it was a dream; I had to check back to confirm it after I was totally awake. I just didn’t know whether I’d make it to graduation.

I was on the transplant list for two and a half weeks. Then one day in late January 2015, just a few days after my 18th birthday, I was taking a nap when the doctor woke me up to tell me that they had found a donor.

After six hours of surgery and six weeks of recovery, I felt stronger than I ever had before. Today I watch my diet and take pills for my blood pressure and cholesterol. I have to keep this heart healthy. I also play on an intramural basketball team at Alabama. When I take my shirt off and the other players see the 10-inch scar on my sternum, I tell the whole story.

I met the donor’s family afterward, and they told me that they’re proud of me. It’s important for me to have their blessing, because he died, and I’m still here. —As told to Tony Rehagen

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.