It is said that love will mend a broken heart. But when that heart is beyond repair, sometimes love still finds its way in through the cracks — and nobody knows that better than Taylor Givens and Collin Kobelja, two strangers who got heart transplants on the same day and ended up falling in love.
Givens and Kobelja's story was recently shared by TODAY, but for the sake of honest journalism, I have to break the fourth wall here: I know Taylor Givens personally. We connected around seven years ago on Tumblr while both in the throws of teenage-hood, attempting to carry on "normal" lives after receiving heart transplants; Givens is my sister in cardiac woe. Because of this, theirs is a story I am especially grateful to be able to tell.
As Givens tells Bustle, she and Kobelja first encountered one another in 2011 at a INOVA Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. Sparks did not immediately fly, though that's reasonable considering the circumstances — on June 9, 2011, then 17-year-old Givens and and then 22-year-old Kobelja both received heart transplants.
"I was diagnosed with viral hypertrophic cardiomyopathy ... I was healthy and never had a problem until I was 17," Givens tells Bustle. "We ruled out all of the exotic possibilities, so my doctors think what happened was that at 17 I caught the common cold which then mutated and attacked my heart." While waiting for a donor heart, Givens, "...ended up on an ECMO life support machine that cycled my blood out of my body and then put it back in so my heart could rest."
For Kobelja, on the other hand, this was a situation he was already well-acquainted with. After a congenital (from birth) heart defect diagnosis, Kobelja received his first heart transplant as a toddler. In 2011, he abruptly entered heart failure again, necessitating a second transplant. At the time of his second surgery, Kobelja's ejection fraction — or the amount of blood leaving your heart with each contraction — was at ten (the normal rate being between 50 and 75).
"When young people are dying from heart failure it isn’t a steady decline," Givens tells Bustle. "Older people get slowly but noticeably worse, whereas a young persons body works until it can’t, and basically crashes and burns."
Once the two transplants were successfully completed, the pair ended up in adjacent recovery rooms. However, it would be another six years before that chance connection would bring them together again.
Fast forward to June of 2016. Kobelja — at that point attending college in California — visited the Virginia hospital where he received his second transplant, to commemorate the five-year anniversary. Givens tells Bustle that she happened to be inpatient at the time, after having her tonsils removed. She asked him to pop by and say hello; the two began dating long distance shortly after, and Kobelja relocated back to Virginia a few months ago. The rest, as they say, is history.
Granted, it has not been exclusively smooth sailing for the Givens and Kobelja. Though both are in exceptional cardiac health, Givens received a cancer diagnosis for which she had to undergo chemotherapy in late 2017. She has since entered remission, and reflects on how the shared experience strengthened their relationship. “Collin took me to every infusion,” Givens told TODAY. “When I was sick and throwing up until to 2 in the morning he was sitting up with me.”
Givens tells Bustle when she and Kobelja first began dating, his mother told her she hoped his future partner "would understand him and be both accurately fearful and in awe of what he has been through." She hoped he’d find someone who would be willing to learn about the complicated parts of his existence. "But for me," says Givens to Bustle, "there’s nothing I have to learn about his medical journey ... In my daily life, Collin is the only one who can call me out when I’m limiting myself because of the transplant, because he ACTUALLY knows how I feel."
Kobelja and Givens are currently planning their wedding, and looking into the possibility of holding the ceremony in the hospital's healing garden.
Stories like these aren't just poignant because of the seemingly impossible odds of them, but because they illustrate the incredible impact of organ donation, and the relationships that they foster. As someone who knows Givens personally, to have a friendship rooted in similar hardship, one with someone who understands the nuances of your existence on a personal level, is profoundly comforting. Together we and other transplant survivors formed a little virtual community that carries on to this day. We listen to each other's relatable anguish and celebrate each other's milestones — be it the anniversary of a transplant, or accidentally finding love from them.
In addition to Valentine's Day, February 14 has been designated National Donor Day by Donate Life America. It is intended as a day to honor and remember those who have donated organs or tissue. You can bet Givens and Kobelja will be celebrating double; Givens shared with TODAY that she hopes that their story will inspire people to learn more about organ donation.
Find out more about becoming an organ donor at Donate Life America.