Tapestry

This woman says she feels love differently since her heart transplant. She wants to know why

After a potentially life-saving heart transplant, Anne Marie Switzer experienced unexpected changes to her tastes and even how she feels love. Some researchers have controversially suggested a donor organ can retain or even transfer its original owner's personality or memories to a recipient.

Some researchers suggest the controversial idea that a donor organ could transfer memories to a new recipient

A woman wearing a white and blue baseball cap, with long brown hair and glasses, smiles towards the camera. You can see the baseball diamond behind her, while a game is being played.
Anne Marie Switzer at a Blue Jays baseball game at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. (Submitted by Anne Marie Switzer)

Anne Marie Switzer was baptized and given her last rites at just two days old.

She was born with a congenital heart disease called transposition of the greater vessels. Even after receiving the life-saving surgery known as the Mustard procedure, she still faced many complications throughout her life.

At 50 years old, she got the gift she had prayed for her entire life: a new heart.

But shortly after her heart transplant, something changed — something she couldn't easily explain.

I know I love my family, but I don't get that squishy feeling [anymore].- Anne Marie Switzer

Perhaps most importantly, Switzer says her feelings of love are no longer the same.

"I don't know when the first time I realized it," said Switzer, who is from Brampton, Ont. "I know I love my family, but I don't get that squishy feeling [anymore]."

Thoughts and memories of her loved ones used to feel warm and tingly, she said. Now, they feel logical or factual, or cold.

"I love my husband, but I don't always get twitterpated anymore," she added, referring to the butterflies-in-your-stomach, love-at-first-sight feeling described in the classic Disney film Bambi.

"It's definitely a loss … because I'm a heart person; I'm a love person; I'm a relationship person. I don't know how many people have told me, 'You've got such a big heart.' And I miss that," she said.

"Why don't I feel that?"

While seemingly rare, It's not an unheard-of phenomenon.

Some researchers believe it may be possible for donor organs to hold and even pass on the characteristics and experiences of its original owner onto the new recipient, via a process known as cellular memory.

Dr. Michael McDonald, a medical director at the Toronto General Hospital's Ajmera Heart Transplant Centre, says the term typically refers to how the body develops immunity to diseases.

"We all have cellular memory as part of our adaptive immune responses that keeps us safe from disease, infection and cancer and anything foreign," he said.

Profile photo of a Caucasian man in his 30s to 40s, with short brown hair, a black shirt and grey blazer, against a light grey background.
Dr. Michael McDonald is a medical director at the Toronto General Hospital’s Ajmera Heart Transplant Centre. (Anthony Olsen)

In other words, it allows our body to remember how to fight diseases we have encountered before. Transplant medicine experts, however, work to make sure that same response doesn't reject a new organ as a potentially harmful foreign object.

"When I'm thinking of [the] strictly clinical function of an organ, I'm … interested in: Is it doing what it's told to do by the rest of the body? Is it squeezing blood around the body? Is it emptying? Is the heart rhythm normal?" said McDonald.

"Beyond that, you know, it's hard for me to say whether there are other components to what a heart can offer, particularly from a donor that's not native to the recipient."

Controversial science

Some researchers, however, have taken the idea of what organs can store — and perhaps pass on — even further.

In a 2019 journal article published in Medical Hypotheses, Dr. Mitchell Liester presented an idea that "memories from the donor's life are stored in the cells of the donated heart and are then 'remembered' by the recipient following transplant surgery."

The evidence for it, however, remains inconclusive and highly controversial.

Dr. John Wallwork, former director of transplant service for the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS), says it's impossible for a physical organ to change your personality, your memories or how you feel.

"Our culture sees the heart as the seat of life, love, the soul. There is no basis in science for this," he offered as an explanation.

A German study from 1992 surveyed 47 patients who received an organ transplant, and found that the majority of them did not experience any change to their personalities.

Fifteen per cent said they did experience changes, but attributed it to the trauma of undergoing a life-threatening procedure. Six per cent (three patients) said their personalities had changed, and attributed it to their new hearts.

Although the numbers are small, Liester said reports of personality changes after a heart transplant have existed for nearly 50 years. But he added that "this phenomenon has not been well researched and is not well understood."

He added "that neither the lack of an adequate explanatory model, nor doubts regarding the existence of such changes, disprove the occurrence of this experience."

A 2016 blog post by The University of Melbourne noted that many studies that examined this phenomenon were done with very small sample sizes, and sometimes with subjects chosen to support the researchers' bias.

And the discussion continues. In 2021, an article offered a "hypothetical explanation" of what it called an organ donor's "heart memory transfer" to some heart transplant recipients, citing the 1992 German study among others.

That said, McDonald acknowledged that a heart transplant is "one of the most transformative experiences somebody can go through."

"We hear … a lot when we're face-to-face with our patients about the different sensory and emotional, cognitive, personal experiences that they have after recovering from transplant," he said.

The Change of Heart memoir

One of the most famous stories of the transplant-recipient experience comes from the late Claire Sylvia. Her 1997 memoir, A Change of Heart, was adapted into a 2002 film called Heart of a Stranger.

After her heart-lung transplant, she wrote that she felt as if "a second soul were sharing my body." She experienced new desires, including an appetite for beer, junk food and curvy blondes.

Five months after surgery, she dreamt about a tall, young man named Tim L. 

"We kiss, and it feels like the deepest breath I have ever taken. And I know at that moment the two of us will be together forever," Sylvia wrote.

"I woke up knowing — really knowing — that Tim L. was my donor and that some parts of his spirit and personality were now in me."

She later discovered her donor's identity via a few details from her nurse, which she then used to find his newspaper obituary. Eventually, she located and visited Tim L.'s family. Their description of him matched the man she saw in her dream.

Sylvia sought help beyond her doctors, and consulted "open-minded scientists" who told her "cellular memory" was the cause of her new appetites and memories.

Where the heart lives

Since her transplant, Switzer has noticed other changes. For example, she went from not caring for the taste of pickles, to wanting them on all her hamburgers.

Switzer never met her donor. She was allowed to write a letter of gratitude to their family via the heart transplant clinic. 

Still she strongly believes the changes she feels have something to do with her new heart. 

Phone taken by a smartphone camera of a woman sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed, smiling. Text added to the photo includes the words "Momma is getting a new heart" followed by several love-heart emojis.
Anne Marie Switzer, just hours before getting her heart transplant. Her surgery was on Sept. 8, 2016. (Submitted by Anne Marie Switzer)

Switzer has heard and considered the arguments — those that support, and those that cast some doubt on the strange phenomenon she says she experienced.

In the end, she doesn't believe anyone can truly speak to the heart-transplant-recipient experience except someone who has been through it.

"They can [only] speak to knowing of, but they can't speak to knowing, unless they've had that experience," she said.


Radio documentary written and produced by Mykella Van Cooten.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mykella Van Cooten is an Associate Producer at CBC Sirius and Q. She is also known as DJ em and loves her dog Eddie.

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