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Cheryl Olson: A story of the heart

Everybody Has a Story

In plays and movies, actors have to learn to emotionally identify with their roles, but Cheryl Olson can skip a few steps.

Olson, who has had two heart transplants, is starring in an upcoming play staged by Battlefords Community Players about a woman who has a heart transplant and meets the donor’s family.

The play is called The Tin Woman and is written by American actor and playwright Sean Grennan.

Cheryl Olson was 31 in 1999. She and husband Darren had two young children. Olson contracted a virus that began as a head cold, and she became seriously ill while visiting family in the United States.

Olson was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Doctors speculated she might have had leukemia or a heart tumour. Specialists found a blood clot, along with other blood clots in her liver and legs. Olson said “the virus was pretty intense and did a lot of crazy things,” and she developed triple pneumonia in both lungs.

Specialists later realized “something was going on with my heart,” Olson said.

They told Darren Cheryl “was in heart failure,” and that few people in her condition survived.

Eventually, she went to Edmonton to be assessed for a heart transplant. At the time she was still very ill.

“For one week I was what you’d call conscious, and then the second week that I was there I was on life support,” Olson said, adding she was on life support Monday, and got the heart Saturday morning.

At one point, Olson said, she had been on life support for 133 hours, “a tremendously long time,” and “doctors felt I had probably less than 24 hours left to be viable.”

The heart came from a 21-year-old named Adam. Olson met his mother and sister about a year later.

Olson had Adam’s former heart for nine years, but started having trouble after the eighth year. Olson said she had chronic rejection. There are different forms of rejection, including instances where the body attacks the organ, she said, and in her case, the transplanted organ’s tissue started to thicken.

“There’s nothing they can do to stop or reverse it,” Olson said, adding she had an aggressive case. She had about a year to find another heart.

Olson was put on a waiting list, then got a call a week later for a procedure in Edmonton.

Olson said she’s had her current heart for about 10 years.

The Olsons’ children are grown now and they are empty-nesters.

In The Tim Woman, Joy’s experience with her heart transplant was different than Olson’s.

The character in the play is single and doesn’t have a family. She “reconciled with herself the fact that she was dying,” Olson said.

“I was in a totally different place from her because I have a husband and kids and I wanted to live no matter what,” Olson said.

Olson said a moment in the play when she reads the donor family’s letter out loud arouses emotions.

“Joy holds her emotions in check and isn’t a very touchy feely person, whereas I was an emotional mess when I met my donor families,” Olson said.

“Trying to say thank you to somebody for something like this is almost impossible because it’s just so inadequate to say thank you.”

Performing one particular scene for the first time brought tears, and Olson has rehearsed since, although she said “one time you’re fine, and the next time it might choke you up a little bit.”

“I just don’t know when it’s going to hit me.”

Every once in a while, Olson said, she experiences survivor’s guilt and what she calls “life moments” at the knowledge she gets to experience things her donor family doesn’t.

Olson’s donor’s name was Lyndsey who was 16 when she was struck by a vehicle and died. The Olsons’ daughter has the same name, spelled differently, and she was 15 around the time Olson received a second heart transplant.

Olson said she maintains a relationship with the donor families, such as including some family members on Facebook. Olson said when she travels to beaches, she writes her donor’s name in the sand with a heart around it.

The play’s premise involves a heart recipient meeting the donor’s family, but Olson said events of the play are likely due to some creative liberties since families meeting is rare.

The medical community, Olson said, doesn’t share more than scant information between donor and recipient. An organization through which donors and recipients communicate sometimes black out information or make people rewrite letters.

When asked if transparency among recipient and donor families is a good thing, Olson said every situation is different. One reason the medical community doesn’t encourage meetings is that, if the donor family has financial problems, they might ask the recipient for money.

Darren, who is directing The Tim Woman, said his and Cheryl’s story has been about the positives of organ donation, but the play is a glimpse into the other side.

Cheryl said the three family members deal with the death of the donor and the recipient’s heart transplant in different ways. The donor’s sister is enthusiastic about meeting, while the donor’s father isn’t, although Olson said everyone in the play undergoes a transformation.

The health care systems of Canada and the U.S. allow the play to resonate differently in the different countries. Olson said she’s lucky she lives in Canada, as the process might have bankrupted the family had they lived in the U.S. Medications afterward are also expensive.

Olson said she’s heard “flabbergasting” stories on Facebook pages as people don’t take essential medication for days because they can’t obtain it.

Darren said it’s the first time he’s directed theatre, although he’s worked in the film industry and directed projects in corporate communications.

Directing his wife is “mostly good,” he said, although Darren said he’d sometimes prefer if certain conversations would take place between him and Cheryl alone rather than in front of the whole cast.

Darren and Cheryl encourage families to discuss intentions of organ donation to avoid having the conversation at a very difficult time. The two also support an opt-out organ donation policy, as opposed to an opt-in one.

The opt-out policy assumes one will have their organs donated when they are declared brain dead unless they take measures to not have their organs donated.

The current situation in Saskatchewan is opt-in, and people who want to donate their organs when they die put a red sticker on their health cards. Cheryl said, however, in many cases the family makes the final decision about organ donation in the event of a family member dying.

The Tin Woman runs at the Battlefords Community Playhouse on Feb. 26, 28 and March 1, 2, 8 and 9, with a matinee performance taking place on Saturday, March 9. Battlefords Community Playhouse phone number is 306-446-3133.