By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Chris Stephens works at the Sawgrass Publix, has a seven-year-old daughter and loves cruising around town in his Toyota Camry with friends during his free time. Few people know just how remarkable a life this is for the 35-year-old Ponte Vedra Beach native. When Stephens was born, he was diagnosed with congenital heart disease (dextrocardia) and spent a good portion of his time resting, missing normal school and friend activities and often just struggling to breath. All of that changed in May 2002 when he received a heart transplant at the age of 17. It was a call that came in the middle of the night after a four-month wait on the transplant list. His breathing improved immediately. His overall recovery in the hospital took two months and still continues today. That’s why the Nease High School graduate recently reached out via social media to find other heart transplant recipients in Ponte Vedra Beach. Twenty years out from his surgery, his hope is to form a local support group and to raise awareness about what it is like to live as a heart transplant recipient. Stephens says his favorite t-shirt sums up his feelings with this message: “I Survived a Heart Transplant. What’s your Superpower?”
Q: How did you feel when you first came out of surgery?
A: When I first woke up, I thought “Oh my gosh, am I really alive?” Then I realized that I could breathe much better and felt like I had more oxygen. At first, I had to take a lot of medications, but now I am only taking anti-rejection medications. I have good days and bad days.
Q: What was it like to grow up with a heart condition?
A: I had to be homeschooled for a few years when I was really struggling. I had multiple surgeries leading up to my transplant, and I had pacemakers throughout my life. I missed out on a lot. I was not able to go out with my friends and go to parties and just have a good time. I would be the one falling asleep on the couch. I could not do anything without being winded. And if I pushed myself too hard, then I would throw up and have severe headaches. I watched my friends go on to college and enter big careers. I wanted to go into law enforcement, but that was not possible. I was able to work in Armed Security from 2007 – 2015, but that ultimately became too dangerous for me.
Q: Why do you want to form a local group of heart transplant recipients?
A: I really want to see if anyone in my hometown has experienced what I have experienced. I also wonder if anybody would ever know that I had a transplant. I want people to know. I don’t want to keep it a secret. I can only work four-hour shifts, can’t lift anything heavy and can’t push myself too hard in the heat. Sometimes people don’t understand this, and they do not understand what life is like. For people who have not had a heart transplant, they do not understand how hard life can be. I want to be a support system for others.
Q: Did becoming a heart transplant recipient change you in any way, and how does your daughter handle your struggles?
A: I have a more emotional side now. I received my transplant from a 16-year-old female. This may sound weird, but I have more of a feminine side than a manly side now. I get upset more easily over small things, and I have more anxiety.
My daughter Kairi is very understanding, and she loves me a lot. She helps me when I need help.
Q: What is your life philosophy?
A: “Live long and prosper.”
[Author’s Note: Stephens would like any local heart transplant recipients to reach out to him by text only at (904) 234-7886.]
Photo courtesy Chris Stephens