In 1988, Claire Sylvia received the first heart-lung transplant performed in New England. In the days and weeks following her surgery, she realized that she had some strange new cravings. For one thing, she found herself “dying for a beer,” even though she’d never liked beer before. She also began to add green peppers to everything she ate, whereas before she had always picked them out. And, when she was finally able to drive again, she found herself heading to KFC for chicken nuggets, even though she had always steered clear of fast food in the past.
There were other odds things, too. Like the fact that Sylvia suddenly found herself with an immense amount of energy, even more than that of other heart transplant recipients she knew. And she rarely got sick anymore, even though she was now on immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of her transplanted organs. There was also the fact that, though she had always been great at spelling, in the years after her transplant, she began reversing letters.
But the really strange thing was the dreams, especially an “unusually vivid” one that occurred five months after her transplant. In this dream, she “inhaled” a man whom she somehow knew was named “Tim L.”
It was only a year and a half later that a series of coincidences led Sylvia to discover that her donor was in fact named Tim Lamirande. What was more, according to Lamirande’s family and friends, he had been extremely energetic, hardly ever got sick, and had trouble in school, with a learning disability that made reading hard for him. As for his tastes, he did enjoy drinking beer, and he loved green peppers. “But what he really loved,” said his sister, “was chicken nuggets.” In fact, when he had the motorcycle accident that killed him, he had a container of chicken nuggets inside his jacket.
Claire Sylvia published her experiences in 1997, in the best-selling book A Change of Heart, which also recounts similar experiences had by other members of her transplant support group. And while her book remains one of the most readable, enjoyable introductions to the subject of “transplant memories,” it is by no means the only source for such information.
Other books written by organ recipients with strange experiences include L’Intrus by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and De coeur inconnu by French actress Charlotte Valandrey. Valandrey describes very precise dreams of the car accident that took the life of her donor (who was unknown to her at the time) as well as a newfound taste for lemon meringue pie sans meringue, an odd preference she later came to find had been shared by her donor. In an even stranger twist, Valandrey actually fell in love with the widower of her donor, before she knew him to be such.
In addition to these book-length accounts, several scientific researchers have collected accounts of personality changes from large groups of organ recipients. In a study published in 1992 (Bunzel et al.), Viennese researchers interviewed 47 recipients of heart transplants, asking them if they felt the same way about themselves after the heart transplant or if they felt changed. And a Canadian study published in 2014 (Mauthner et al.) analyzed video recordings of interviews with 25 heart transplant recipients in which they were asked whether their transplant had affected how they thought about themselves or their bodies.
Some of the organ recipients in these studies brought up specific changes in personality they felt were related to their transplant. In the Viennese study, a patient reported feeling that the person they’d gotten their heart from must have been a calm person, because they were feeling much calmer, and another reported loving to listen to loud music through earphones, something he didn’t ever do before. In the Canadian study, a woman said she was no longer interested in having sex with her husband and attributed this to having received a male heart.
Neither of these studies systematically compared recipients’ statements about perceived personality changes with independent information about their donors, but another study published in 1999 in the journal Integrative Medicine (Pearsall et al.) focuses on this kind of comparison and presents 10 cases in which there are undeniable correlations between the two. For instance:
- A 7-month-old boy named Carter received the heart of a 16-month-old boy, Jerry. Before Carter had ever met Jerry’s father, he picked him out of a room full of people, running right up to him, climbing into his lap, and saying, “Daddy.” When his mother asked him why he’d done that, “he said he didn’t. He said Jerry did and he went with him.” When Jerry’s parents spent the night at Carter’s home, Carter went into their bedroom and asked to sleep with them, cuddling between them the way Jerry used to do. He told them not to cry because Jerry said everything was okay. It is also interesting to note that Jerry had suffered from mild cerebral palsy predominantly on his left side, and after the transplant, Carter developed “stiffness and some shaking” on his left side as well.
- A 47-year-old white man received the heart of a 17-year-old black man. His wife reported that he had become more comfortable with his black friends, inviting them over to the house for the first time, for example. He himself said that one big change in him was that he now loved classical music, playing it all the time. “I know it’s not my new heart,” he said, “because a black guy from the hood wouldn’t be into that.” Unbeknownst to him, his donor was a violinist whose friends always made fun of the music he liked.
- A 47-year-old man received a heart from a 14-year-old female gymnast. The girl’s mother reported that her daughter “had some trouble with food,” sometimes skipping meals or purging. She also said her daughter “had this silly little giggle when she got embarrassed.” The man who received her heart developed a tendency to giggle (his brother called it a “girl’s laugh”) that annoyed his wife to no end. He also found himself nauseated after eating, wondering if it would help if he threw up.
- A 9-year-old boy received the heart of a 3-year-old girl who had drowned in a backyard pool. The boy’s mother reported he was now “deathly afraid of the water” even though he used to love it. The boy himself said of his donor, “I talk to her sometimes. I can feel her in there. She seems very sad. She is very afraid. I tell her it’s okay, but she is very afraid. She says she wishes that parents wouldn’t throw away their children. I don’t know why she would say that.” Apparently, the girl’s parents had gotten a divorce and left her alone a lot. She drowned while the babysitter was on the telephone.
- A 5-year-old boy received a heart from a 3-year-old boy named Timmy who fell while trying to retrieve a Power Ranger toy that had fallen onto a window ledge. Without knowing Timmy’s name, age, or manner of death, the recipient of his heart said, “I gave the boy a name. He’s younger than me and I call him Timmy. He’s just a little kid. He’s a little brother like about half my age. He got hurt bad when he fell down. He likes Power Rangers a lot I think, just like I used to. I don’t like them anymore though. I like Tim Allen on Tool Time, so I called him Tim. I wonder where my old heart went too. I sort of miss it. It was broken, but it took care of me for a while.”
While there is no scientific consensus regarding the explanation for the changes observed in these transplant cases, it’s very clear that something is happening that belies the simplistic view of the heart as “just a pump” and the brain as the sole arbiter of consciousness. These cases strongly suggest that some measure of personality is intimately connected with the organs of the physical body and that this bodily consciousness may be transmitted to an organ recipient in some as yet unknown way. If we continue to investigate such cases, they may ultimately provide us with some important clues regarding the nature of consciousness and its connection to the physical body.
Bunzel, B., Schmidl-Mohl, B., Grundböck, A., & Wollenek, G. (1992). Does changing the heart mean changing personality? A retrospective inquiry on 47 heart transplant patients. Quality of Life Research 1: 251-6.
Mauthner, O. E., De Luca, E., Poole, J. M., Abbey, S. E., Shildrick, M., Gewarges, M., and Ross, H. J. (2014). Heart transplants: Identity disruption, bodily integrity and interconnectedness. Health. DOI: 10.1177/1363459314560067.
Pearsall, P., Schwartz, G. E. R., and Russek, L. G. S. (1999). Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors. Integrative Medicine 2(2/3): 65-72.
One response to “Can an Organ Transplant Alter Your Identity?”
Thanks for reminding me of this phenomenon.