The last thing Arthur Joven (AJ) Reyes remembers from the fall of 2010 was a trip to the emergency room near his parents’ home in Vallejo. Five years after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF), he was exhausted, but afraid to fall asleep, afraid he wouldn’t wake up. Two months later, he woke up at Stanford Hospital, a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted inside his chest. At just 25 years old, his heart and organs were failing, and he was listed for transplant, Status 1A, the highest acuity level. Six days later, he got the call. A heart was available, the gift of a 40-year old man who had died in a motorcycle accident outside of Willows. Reyes underwent a heart transplant at Stanford the next morning.
“The first thing I did when I woke up from surgery was feel my chest,” said Reyes, who had to run his hands across the staples to believe that it actually happened. “I remember hearing and feeling for the first time how strong my new heart was. I forgot what it felt like to have a strong and healthy heart.”
Eight years later, Reyes, now 33, has returned to Stanford—not just a grateful patient, but a Stanford nurse on C2. The day he interviewed for the job was the eighth anniversary of his transplant. “Stanford was my dream hospital where I got the best care from the best nurses,” he said. “They made the experience for me and it made me want to be part of the experience for someone else.”
Reyes’ dream of becoming a nurse began as a child, inspired by his mom who was an ED nurse. But in his second year as a pre-nursing student at Sacramento State, he had to shelve that career goal. The physical demands of nursing were too great for a 20-year old newly diagnosed with CHF. Instead he studied health administration, still wanting a career where he could help others.
After his transplant, the desire to become a nurse was reignited by meeting his donor’s mother, Mary Knauer, at a Donate Life event. Reyes had just finished competing in a 10K race when he was introduced to his donor’s family. His mother brought her stethoscope so Mary could hear her son Justin’s heart beating in Reyes’ chest.
“I was so grateful to be able to say thank you and meet them,” said Reyes. “I promised her I wasn’t going to take Justin’s heart for granted. I really wanted to do something big with this gift.” In 2016, he enrolled in an accelerated nursing program at Samuel Merritt University, and graduated a year later. Knauer was there to witness his achievement, his donor family now an extension of Reyes’ own.
“It’s really remarkable to recover from a transplant and embark on a career, go back to school, get into a highly competitive profession like nursing,” said Pauline Regner, the Patient Care Manager on the transplant floor. Her team of nurses helped care for Reyes during his inpatient stay. “He brings a unique perspective to nursing. He knows what it’s like to be a patient who’s been through a very long and high acuity illness.”
“I really wanted to make the most out of the second chance that I got,” said Reyes, who hopes to work with transplant patients during his nursing career. “I am forever grateful for people who decide to become organ donors. Those people become heroes to people like me.”