Terrell is making the most of his gift of life

Terrell Jordan Sr. playing basketball
Terrell Jordan Sr. plays basketball in the 2016 Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Iowa Donor Network.

Terrell Jordan Sr., 44, of Cedar Rapids, is the picture of health. He plays basketball several times a week, is a professional clown, and preaches at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids.

But he knows better than to take his good health for granted. Every day he thinks about Jesse, the 21-year-old from Des Moines whose last-minute decision to become an organ donor saved his life.

Life-changing diagnosis

When Terrell went to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics emergency room one October morning in 2006, he was just looking for a note from a doctor excusing him from work.

“I began to feel sick that morning. I didn’t have a clue anything was really wrong,” Terrell says. “That’s when they told me I was having a heart attack.”

Terrell had never really worried about his health.

“I was extremely active,” he says, “but going to the emergency room that day really saved my life.”

Terrell was diagnosed with giant cell myocarditis, a rare condition that comes on fast and results in inflammation of the heart muscle. Those with giant cell myocarditis will experience irregular heartbeats, chest pain, and eventually heart failure. Most cases result in a heart transplant.

“When they first told me I was having a heart attack, I thought they were joking,” Terrell says. “They were telling me to lie down, but I was feeling fine. I didn’t know at the time that one side of my heart had already shut down.” 

In the days that followed, Terrell’s heart developed a blood clot on the side that was still beating. That placed him higher on the transplant list.

“The last thing I was thinking of was a heart transplant,” Terrell recalls. “I have friends who have gone through transplants, but I never really had a chance to sit back and think about what a person has to go through—and it’s a lot. There was a lot going through my head. My wife was pregnant with my youngest at the time; the baby was due in February. I wanted to see my new baby.”

Life-changing surgery

Terrell had been in the hospital for several weeks when his doctor came into his room in late November and told him they had a heart for him.

“I immediately burst into tears,” Terrell says. “I was happy and scared all at the same time. Once you get that news, it’s the not knowing—once you go into that room, either you’re coming out or you’re not. That’s all there is to it.”

Terrell’s surgery was successful. He spent a few more weeks in the hospital recovering but was back home in time for Christmas.

About a year after his surgery, Terrell met the family of his donor, Jesse, and learned just how close he came to not having a heart that day.

“My life is so much better now. I just thank them for the decision they made. They could have said ‘no,’ and they almost did,” he recalls. Jesse was killed by a hit-and-run driver while leaving a friend’s birthday celebration. His family didn’t realize it at the time but he signed up to be an organ donor the day he received his commercial driver’s license.

“I do stress how important it is for people to become organ donors,” Terrell says. “That is very, very important, and I try to get out as much as I can to get people to sign up.”

Terrell’s and Jesse’s families planned a surprise party for Terrell to meet his donor family for the first time.

“The first thing (Jesse’s mom) did was come up and feel her son’s heart beating inside me,” Terrell says. “That was very overwhelming. Then she put her head down to hear the heartbeat, which I thought was spectacular.

“There’s something about having someone else’s heart beating inside you, and the biggest part of that is taking care of that gift—because that’s what it is, it’s a gift,” he says. “My family is huge now—I have my family and I have Jesse’s family.”

Terrell says he’s forever grateful for the gift Jesse and his family provided him, but he knows it came with pain as well.

“In my situation, someone had to die in order for me to live,” he says. “If he hadn’t signed the back of that card, where would I be? What would my life be like? What would my kids be going through?”

He thanks his care team at UI Hospitals & Clinics, too, for their care and expertise.

“I just need to say ‘thank you’ to all of them. They make a huge difference for all of us.”

Cedar Rapids, Iowa