Against All Odds
Inova heart transplant patients, who never met while receiving lifesaving care in adjoining hospital rooms, reconnected and found enduring love
On Taylor Givens and Collin Kobelja’s first date, the couple paused their dinner for a medicine break. Both needed to take anti-rejection drugs to help sustain their transplanted hearts.
“It was a weirdly touching moment,” recalls Taylor, 24. “To see those parts of ourselves mirrored in someone else was really cool.”
Both were predicted to die within days if donor organs couldn’t be found
Perhaps even more ironic is how the pair’s love story sprung from their experiences at Inova, where a heart transplant saved each of them on June 9, 2011. Rooming just yards away from each other in the Inova Heart & Vascular Institute under the care of Inova’s Heart Transplant Program, Taylor and Collin were in a race for their lives: Taylor’s heart was failing, possibly from a virus, while Collin had been born with a faulty heart and his first transplant was failing decades later. Both were predicted to die within days if donor organs couldn’t be found.
Kept alive with ECMO
The two clung to life while hooked up to ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines that supported their heart and lung function — equipment Inova has invested in heavily since 2010. “When you place someone on ECMO, their heart has already died, and this machine is keeping their body alive waiting for another heart to become available. Few people get from needing emergency ECMO to transplantation, just due to the long wait time for organs in the U.S.,” says Shashank Desai, MD, Medical Director, Inova’s Heart Failure/Transplant Program. “So the fact that this happened twice in people in the same 24 hours at Inova Fairfax Hospital, who are now together, is more miraculous.”
A chance meeting, 5 years later
Taylor and Collin, 17 and 22 at the time, were too sick to interact meaningfully during their hospitalizations, although their parents had met. They later connected on social media, and Taylor was aware of Collin’s subsequent move to California and his third heart transplant, which he received in late 2012.
It wasn’t until June 9, 2016 — exactly five years after their Inova transplants — that sparks finally flew between the two. Visiting the area, Collin texted Taylor to ask if their heart transplant team members were still around. Taylor, who happened to be at Inova Fairfax awaiting discharge after a tonsillectomy, told Collin to stop by her hospital room.
“Afterwards, it kind of felt like both of us got struck by lightning,” Taylor says. “Looking back now, we see everything that had to go wrong for us to be together.”
“I told her that we should hang out — and not in a hospital room!” says Collin, now 29. “Five days later, we met for dinner.”
Eye on the Future
Anchored by their shared experiences, the couple intends to marry one day — symbolically on a June 9. And they continue to prove their mettle during ongoing challenges. Taylor is undergoing treatment at Inova for Burkitt lymphoma, a rare complication arising from her heart donor’s exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus. Typically, the virus only causes mononucleosis, but for immunosuppressed patients, it can trigger lymphoma.
Collin, who moved back to the Bethesda area last summer, has been able to support his sweetheart throughout the ordeal, which has included surgery and chemotherapy. Her prognosis is extremely good.
“A lot of ‘us’ is bad things happening but with really good timing and good outcomes,” jokes Taylor. As she continues to heal, the pair continues to advocate for organ donation, eyeing a healthy future while fully aware that life rarely provides a neat and tidy outcome.
“The whole point of having a transplant is just so you can live your life. Go make it as normal or not-normal as you want,” Collin says. “Yes, you’re different, you’re special in a way … but that’s not how I think about it. We’re just grateful to be alive and have a relationship where we can love each other.”
Dr. Desai says the couple’s cases both exemplify the type of teamwork Inova clinicians embrace. “From complete opposite ends of the spectrum, these two came to the same point: needing us to buy them time to get a transplant,” Dr. Desai recalls. “They have the type of story that inspires our staff to do what they do and keeps us going.”
Inova’s heart transplant program: First in the DC region
In 1986, Inova established the first heart transplant program in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and has since performed hundreds of heart transplants. Between 20 and 25 heart transplants are done at Inova Fairfax each year, Dr. Desai says, a consistently higher volume than most centers in the region.