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Oakwood woman receives heartfelt, life-saving gift
Kayla Montiel lives for herself and her two organ donors
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Kayla Montiel, 24, holds a picture frame with memories of her most recent heart and kidney donor, Zachary Harrison, at her home in Oakwood. Montiel made contact with Harrison’s parents shortly after receiving her transplant and has remained in contact with them ever since. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Ways to be an organ donor

What can be donated?

  • Organs: heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver and intestines
  • Tissue: cornea, skin, heart valves, bone, blood vessels and connective tissue
  • Bone marrow/stem cells, umbilical cord blood, peripheral blood stem cells

Who can be a donor?

  • Any one of any age (those younger than 18 must have parental consent).
  • Those with any medical condition (doctors evaluate the organs before donation).   

Other ways to be a donor

  • Donate bone marrow and cord blood.

For more information, visit www.bethematch.org.

One day before his high school graduation, Zachary Harrison was in a car accident. And instead of preparing to start a new chapter in his life, he was fighting to keep it.

On May 22, 2014, Zachary was riding in a car with three other classmates when they hit a dip in the road. The driver lost control and crashed. Zachary suffered severe head trauma and was rushed to a hospital.

After several days with no signs of improvement, Robert and Tonya Harrison — who could not be reached for comment for this story — made the tough decision to say goodbye to their son.

But, in reality, the Newnan couple did not have to bid farewell to all of him. Today, Zachary Harrison’s heart is beating inside the chest of a young Oakwood woman. The Harrisons’ donation, in fact, gave Kayla Montiel her second heart in her 24 years.

Montiel lives with the knowledge two families — one being the Harrisons and the other unidentified — saved her life after a loved one died.

“There is a lot of controversy with transplants,” she said. “And not a lot of people want to donate their loved one’s organs.”

But the 24-year-old woman is glad families do.

Her first heart

Montiel had her first transplant May 22, 1992, the day she and her family celebrate as her heart day, because it is the day that gave her a life. The University of North Georgia student doesn’t remember much of it, but her mother, Debbie Mancaruso, does.

Mancaruso said Montiel was born with a birth defect. Her mitral valve, the valve between the left atrium and left ventricle of the heart, wasn’t formed completely.

“As she started growing and getting bigger, the valve wasn’t adequate enough for her heart,”Mancaruso said. “She ended up with a dying heart muscle.”

At 8 months old, Montiel had her first open heart surgery to replace the damaged valve.

Doctors hoped the heart would repair itself. But not even a year later, Mancaruso was informed her daughter had to be placed on heavier medication and listed for a heart transplant.

“You’re sitting there looking at them in 1992, wanting to ask them, ‘What did you just say?’” Mancaruso said.

At 18 months, Montiel received a new heart from a boy in Washington state.

“When you are that young, you have to receive a heart that is that tiny,” Montiel said. “So if an infant has to have a transplant, then it is an infant’s heart you get.”

Montiel’s mother had to go through extensive counseling before deciding to accept the challenges of raising a heart transplant recipient. Making it more difficult was the knowledge her daughter’s life possibly may only be prolonged by five years.

“I have my faith and I had to put everything in God’s hands,” Mancaruso said. “You don’t pray for someone to come save your daughter’s life. You just pray that whatever is going to be will just be and that we will have the strength to get through it.”

After the transplant, Mancaruso’s main fear was administering the anti-rejection medication to her infant child.

“She had to take it, because that’s telling her body that she was born with that heart,” she said. “My fear was she was going to go into a rejection and I’m not going to have her.”

Luckily as time passed, so did Mancaruso’s anxiety.

“As you see them up and playing normal, the fear starts to go away,” she said.

For the most part, Montiel lived a normal childhood after her transplant.

“I did do a year of softball, but after that year I started getting tired,” she said. “So my doctors took me off heavy amounts of activity.”

Along with those restrictions, Montiel’s mother always took extra precautions when childhood illnesses arose at school.

“The school would contact me and I would have to call her doctors and they would have to give her a shot to make sure she didn’t catch anything,” she said.

The family tried to make life as average as possible as Montiel grew. She started dancing in high school. But then her heart started to fail during her senior year.

A year later, the Southern California high school graduate moved to Georgia.

“I visited my dad because he was working out here and my sister moved during her senior year,” she said.

Second transplant

After the move, Montiel’s health started deteriorating. Her body was retaining fluid because of pressures in her heart and kidney.

“I was on a certain medication until I was 17 that had a certain toxicity which had my kidneys drop from full function to 50 percent,” Montiel said.

Not knowing exactly what was wrong, doctors tried fixing her heart. Specifically, doctors tried to repair the tricuspid valve, which the blood first encounters as it enters the heart.

“I flatlined on the table during that surgery, September 2013,” she said matter of factly.

After the surgery, Montiel’s kidney function dropped to 30 percent.

Now the young woman was facing a second transplant 22 years after her first in order to live. The added challenge was Montiel not only needed a new heart but a kidney, too.

Her mother felt helpless.

“I looked at her and said, ‘I’m so sorry, if I could trade places with you, I would,’” Mancaruso said. “She said to me, ‘Why would you want to do that? If you were laying here, I would be wanting to do the same exact thing for you, mom.’”

Her failing heart and kidneys equaled isolation from the world, literally. Montiel was stuck at the hospital without the option of even going outside with a nurse.

“The combined pressures of my heart stiffening from use of medication and my kidneys failing from use of medication caused my abdomen to swell with ascites, which is fluid in the abdomen,” she said.

Finally after waiting three months, Montiel received the news of a new heart and kidney. She underwent her second heart transplant June 1, 2014, and her kidney transplant June 2, 2014.

“Originally they weren’t going to let me have the dual transplant because I was still peeing great,” the pre-nursing major said. “My kidneys were doing really good despite the fact that I had the kidneys of an 80-year-old man.”

With the fear of the kidney transplant not fixing her problem, Montiel’s doctors were 85 percent certain it would fix the water retention. But it worried Montiel.

“The kidney, I was more worried than the heart,” she said. “The heart, I’ve already been through that. ... The kidney, I didn’t know anything.”

Montiel and her family were told whatever was good for the heart was good for the kidney.

Both transplants have proven successful. Montiel is enrolled in college and enjoying her everyday life.

She does deal with the constant reminders of her precarious health. She takes multiple medications and has to remember which ones can and cannot be taken at the same time. Her medications include pills to keep her alive and control her cholesterol. She also takes pills to soothe her stomach, which constantly processes her numerous medications.

“We still pray every day that it fixes the problem and so far it is fixing the problem,” Montiel said.

Her young donor

Handling the everyday issues of being a transplant recipient, however, is nothing compared to life with an unhealthy heart. Montiel has the Harrisons to thank for her current life.

She has the pleasure of knowing them and developing a relationship with Robert and Tonya Harrison. She never met the family who donated her heart as an infant.

“I met (the Harrisons) after the transplant. It’s always after,” Montiel said.

Her first connection to the Harrisons was through a letter.

“You’re allowed to send letters with very vague information,” she said. “You can’t say last names, but you can say what they were like.”

After the Harrisons sent their first letter to Montiel, the couple requested to meet the young woman with their son’s heart.

“Since I was (in Georgia) and on the news, they let us meet a lot sooner,” Montiel said, admitting she was nervous. “I had the strange feeling that I was going to say the wrong thing because I never met my first donor family.”

Montiel’s mom wrote the first donors, but never received a response.

“I would have understood if Tonya and Robert never wrote back,” Montiel said. “I’m very glad that they did. It helps me as much as it helps them, because I know what my donor was like.”

Mancaruso is thankful for the gift the Harrisons gave to help her daughter.

“Kayla wouldn’t have any story if it wasn’t for Zachary,” she said. “And now she is living her story and Zachary’s as well to get organ awareness out there.”

Spreading awareness

Undergoing three transplants herself, Montiel aims to encourage transplant recipients who are older children and young adults because it is the hardest age for undergoing the major surgery.

“Most of the time they say, ‘Oh I feel good. I feel great. I don’t have to take my medication,’” she said. “It’s during that time when they don’t take their medication bad things start happening.”

Montiel explained if doctors discovered she wasn’t taking her medicine, she’d not be recommended for another transplant in the future if the need arose.

“It’s not only for taking their medicine on time for future transplants they might need, but also it helps prolong their life and prolong the life of the donor,” she said.

To prolong her own life, Montiel is taking it easy to an extent for now.

“I’m doing my cardiac rehab and I’m in school full time,” she said, noting rehab helps build her heart muscles through monitored physical therapy.

In cardiac rehab, Montiel raises her heart rate and blood pressure and slowly brings it back down with stretches.

In school, Montiel is learning about nursing. It is a drastic change to her original plan.

“I started going to school, before I got sick, for culinary arts,” Montiel said. “I wanted to own my own restaurant.”

But after going through three transplants, her calling changed.

“I want to be a pretransplant coordinator,” she said. “I have to have my (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), so nursing it is.”

Having the best gift in the world, a new heart, Montiel plans to live her life not only for her but for her donor Zachary Harrison and his parents.

“I’ve always been a fighter,” she said.

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