'There are tears and that's not acting': Recipient of 2 heart transplants plays transplant survivor on stage

Cheryl Olson plays the lead character Joy, a heart transplant survivor, in a play produced by the Battleford Community Players. It's a part that comes to her naturally — Olson herself has survived two heart transplants.

Cheryl Olson has had two heart transplants and now plays a character who was a heart transplant survivor

Cheryl Olson, front row right, plays a heart transplant survivor in The Tin Woman. She's seen here with other cast member. Back Row: Darren Olson, Bob Horrell, Holly Briant, Cindy Coupal, Jim Walls, Glen Rubidge, Pat Malo. Front Row: Lynda Lyon-Walls and Candice Froess with Olson. (Submitted by Cheryl Olson)

A play being produced by the Battleford Community Players has a special meaning for one of its actors. Cheryl Olson plays the lead character, Joy, who is a heart transplant survivor.

In real life, Olson herself has survived two heart transplants.

She received her first heart transplant two decades ago, after becoming ill in 1999. Her second transplant was in 2008, when she received an organ donated by a 16-year-old girl named Lyndsey.

"I take absolutely every opportunity I can to remember my donors and to honour them," Olson told CBC Saskatchewan's The Morning Edition.

"I don't feel that I need to live for them, but they're always in my mind."

Cheryl Olson was visited by her kids in 1999 shortly after her first heart transplant. Her family meant 'I had every reason to fight as hard as I could to live,' she says. (Cheryl Olson/Facebook)

The play she's performing in with the North Battleford, Sask., community theatre group is Sean Grennan's The Tin Woman. It's based on a true story of a woman who received a heart transplant and the family of the organ donor.

"It's been challenging at times, emotionally," Olson said. "We've rehearsed it so many times and yet we still know everything that happens, and there's still tears — not just for me either, from other cast members."

It's not based on Olson's life, but she sees similarities — and important differences.

"In this story, Joy is single and has no children. And she had sort of reconciled herself to the fact that she was dying," she said.

"I was 31 at the time [of the first transplant] and I'm married" with children — ages three and six at the time, she said.

"So I had every reason to fight as hard as I could to live."

Cheryl Olson and her husband, Darren, are both involved in the production of The Tin Woman. (Cheryl Olson/Facebook)

While both she and the character in The Tin Woman have to come to terms with living thanks to someone who has died, "For me, I have had survivor guilt definitely a little bit different than Joy," Olson said.

"I think for me it's more associated with those life moments that I get to experience that I know my donors never will."

For example, Olson recently took her daughter wedding dress shopping for her upcoming day — something that she knows her donor's mother will not have the chance to do.

"That's the kind of thing that really I struggle with."

The production of The Tin Woman, which opened Feb. 26 and closes with a dinner theatre performance on March 9, has gone well and received lots of positive feedback, she says.

"It's been different than any other play that I've done because … I can relate to the situation so much more," she said. "It's very emotional for me, every single [performance]. There are tears, and that's not acting — they just come."

Performing in The Tin Woman has been an emotional experience, Olson says. (Darren Olson/Facebook)

Her latest donor is in her mind during the play and even on set, Olson said.

"On the set of Joy's apartment, I was adamant that I wanted a picture of my my current heart donor on stage. And so we have her on a shelf in the apartment," she said.

"And during the curtain call I go over and I grab the picture and I take her," she said. "And I take my bow while I'm holding her picture for everyone to see."

It's an emotional moment for some audience members, she says.

"That, I've been told, has really put some people over the edge. I had one man say that he was fine until he saw that."

Raising awareness for organ donation

Olson hopes this play can be a platform to help raise awareness for organ donation.

"It's not a subject that, you know, just pops up around the dinner table unless you know somebody who is in a situation of needing an organ."

Olson said talking about organ donation is important, as the current system allows for family members to have the final say — regardless of whether someone has a sticker on their health card.

"Talk it over with your family. Talk it over with your friends and let them know what your wishes are."

With files from The Morning Edition


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