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Transplant recipient: 'I don't take one day for granted'

Stephen Huba
| Thursday, May 4, 2017, 4:36 p.m.
Brittany Grimm, 21, a junior, talks about how she thanks her donor every morning, for the heart she was given during her life saving organ transplant, during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. Seton Hill added in an organ transplant awareness aspect to their spring carnival, to help students understand how their tragedy could save another life.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Brittany Grimm, 21, a junior, talks about how she thanks her donor every morning, for the heart she was given during her life saving organ transplant, during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. Seton Hill added in an organ transplant awareness aspect to their spring carnival, to help students understand how their tragedy could save another life.
Bringing organ donor awareness to the campus, 2000 spinners were set up outside during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. The spring carnival fell on the day of the 10 year anniversary of student Brittany Grimm's life saving heart transplant.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Bringing organ donor awareness to the campus, 2000 spinners were set up outside during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. The spring carnival fell on the day of the 10 year anniversary of student Brittany Grimm's life saving heart transplant.
Colleen Sullivan, director of communications for the Center for Organ Recovery and education (CORE), talks about 'YOLO: Your Organs Live On', during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. The organ donation aspect of the carnival celebrates the 10 year anniversary of student Brittany Grimm receiving her life saving heart transplant.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Colleen Sullivan, director of communications for the Center for Organ Recovery and education (CORE), talks about 'YOLO: Your Organs Live On', during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. The organ donation aspect of the carnival celebrates the 10 year anniversary of student Brittany Grimm receiving her life saving heart transplant.
With her brother Harrison looking on, student Brittany Grimm, 21, a junior, gives her dad Butch, and mom Colleen a hug, after speaking to a group of students and staff about how organ donation saved her life when she needed a heart, during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. Seton Hill added in an organ transplant awareness aspect to their spring carnival, to help students understand how their tragedy could save another life.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
With her brother Harrison looking on, student Brittany Grimm, 21, a junior, gives her dad Butch, and mom Colleen a hug, after speaking to a group of students and staff about how organ donation saved her life when she needed a heart, during the spring carnival at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, on Thursday, May 04, 2017. Seton Hill added in an organ transplant awareness aspect to their spring carnival, to help students understand how their tragedy could save another life.

Inside Brittany Grimm beats the heart of a 31-year-old man.

The 21-year-old college junior got a second chance at life 10 years ago when she received a heart transplant in Pittsburgh – an event that informs virtually everything about her life today.

“Every day, I wake up and I thank my donor for me being here,” she said. “I don't take one day for granted. I live life to the fullest.”

A communications major at Seton Hill University, Grimm used her experience to promote organ donation at the school's annual spring picnic on Thursday. Grimm's talk on the 10th anniversary of her heart transplant culminated a week of activities oriented around the importance of organ donation.

“I've made it my life's goal to tell people how important organ donation is,” she said. “Without people signing up to be an organ donor, I wouldn't be here.”

Her parents, Butch and Colleen Grimm of Erie, said not a day goes by that they don't think about the transplant. “It's always in the back of your mind,” Butch Grimm said. “Until you have a connection with someone who's had a transplant, you really don't know what it's like.”

Grimm is literally the poster child for organ donation ­— she appears on promotional brochures for Donate Life Pennsylvania and the Center for Organ Recovery & Education. The latter, based in Pittsburgh, is one of 58 not-for-profit organ procurement organizations in the United States.

Forty-six percent of Pennsylvanians with a driver's license or state ID have indicated their willingness to donate an organ or tissue, CORE spokeswoman Colleen Sullivan said.

“Not nearly enough people are checking that box,” she said.

Nationally, 118,000 people are on an organ transplant waiting list — 100,000 of them for a kidney transplant, Sullivan said.

Grimm started having heart troubles when she was 9 years old and became sick with pneumonia. A chest X-ray revealed an enlarged heart — a symptom of restrictive cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart does not pump blood properly and for which there is no cure.

Doctors monitored her for two years and then put her on a list for a heart transplant, which she received in 2007 at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Her heart, which was three times its normal size, was replaced by the heart of a man who had suffered a massive seizure.

Grimm does not know the identity of the man but has written letters of gratitude that have been forwarded to his family.

Today, the 5-foot-tall woman has a 12-inch scar that is barely visible. Although she takes medicine to prevent her body's rejection of the heart, she is physically active, volunteers as a campus tour guide and participates in the Transplant Games.

Seton Hill President Mary C. Finger held up Grimm as a model student on Thursday.

“Her personal story of the importance of organ donation spurred her to take action and continues to inspire others 10 years later. All of us at Seton Hill are proud to join in her tremendous advocacy for organ donation and to celebrate this important milestone in her life,” Finger said.

Also speaking at Thursday's event was Craig J. Smith, 29, of Johnstown. Suffering from viral cardiomyopathy, he received his heart transplant at Allegheny General Hospital in 2015.

Shortly after moving to State College in 2014, Smith started experiencing symptoms of the disease. He was put on a left ventricular assist device for a year and a half while he awaited a transplant.

Smith promotes organ donation through his nonprofit organization, Second Chance Fundraising.

To register to be an organ and tissue donor, go to www.DonateLifePA.org/registration.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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