Twice a year we award a student the iVein Health and Wellness Scholarship. Students must write an essay that promotes a practical approach to a healthy lifestyle in college and how these habits can be sustained over a lifetime.

This year’s fall scholarship was awarded to a student from Lasell College in Massachusetts. Here is the winning essay:

The nurse handed me my information packet to take home and written at the top of the paper in bold, capital letters it said, “IF YOU DO NOT TAKE YOUR MEDICATION YOU WILL DIE.” Simple enough, but how did we get here? When I was twelve years old I was unexpectedly diagnosed with life-threatening heart disease and told I needed a heart transplant to live. Obviously this was a life changing moment for our family, and something that would change my life and approach to healthy living forever. I waited 832 days, but in 2014, at the age of 14, I had a successful heart transplant – and I’m not wasting one second with this gift.

My life has been changed in many ways, one of which is my dependency on special medications. They are extremely expensive and cause some unappealing side-effects, but they keep me alive. The human body will always reject foreign tissue, and my new heart is foreign tissue, meaning that my immune system is always trying to attack my new heart. In order to prevent this I take immunosuppressive medications and will take them the rest of my life. That means that I’m extremely susceptible to illness, so I have become quite the germaphobe. I have to be careful what foods I eat, carry a medical mask with me to places like the movie theater, and germ-x is my best friend. If I were to get sick, it would have a far worse impact on me than it would anyone else because; even though it’s done on purpose, my immune system is very weak.

The fact is a heart transplant isn’t a cure, and while I choose not to focus on this, I know that I will likely need another transplant one day. The average lifespan of a transplanted heart is 12-14 years (this was hard to hear as a 12-year-old). My heart transplant and its implications are something I will live with for the rest of my life. That’s why it’s my responsibility to take care of my body and heart, so it can last years and years from now. Many teenage organ recipients tend to struggle with their transitions to college. They have previously relied on their parents to remind them to take their medications every morning and evening. Furthermore, some teenagers even depend on their parents to order their medication and fill their medicine case with the correct doses. Therefore, when they leave for college many students fail to take their medications at all, which, like I said earlier, has dire consequences. Luckily, my parents gave me the responsibility, with their assistance, to handle my medications from an early age. When I was transitioning to college, my doctors requested monthly labs, to ensure I was still taking my medications. My doctor told me, “I don’t think you’ll have any problems, but I’ve been wrong before and I don’t want to be wrong again.” At the end of freshman year my levels had always been consistent and I proved I could be trusted to manage my own medication.

Aside from my medications, it is important that I keep my body physically fit. The “Freshman 15” is real. And being a heart transplant recipient gives me no excuse not to pay attention as much as anyone else. It would be easy to say, “I tire easily… my legs are weak… my body is off today…” and while I may say this occasionally , overall I remember that it’s my duty to keep my heart in the best shape possible. I try to be active and get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day to protect my heart – I’m obsessed with “closing my rings” and getting my 10,000 steps in on my Apple Watch. This truly isn’t hard as a busy college student running around campus, but during the summer I often hear the ding of my watch, reminding me “It’s time to stand up!” Apps like these are so beneficial for young adults my age, who can get lost for hours scrolling through social media or binge-watching Friends on Netflix. Furthermore, I try to eat healthy, which can be extremely difficult at school. Most dining halls try to provide healthy options, but speaking honestly, sometimes the chicken stir fry (I use the word “chicken” loosely) doesn’t look as appetizing as a hot slice of pepperoni pizza from the snack-bar.

After I received my transplant, I was excited to return to the active, sporty life I had loved before I was diagnosed. Only a year after my transplant I joined high school sports teams, only to realize my body had a long way to go. Unfortunately, I would never be the athlete that I might’ve been. That’s not to say that there aren’t transplant recipients who run marathons – because there are. Everyone has their own story. For me, I do what I can. Instead of running a soccer field or hitting volleyballs, I build my stamina by riding a stationary bike at the school athletic center, lots of walking on campus, and doing simple workouts in my room.

My perspective of health and wellness likely looks different than the average college student. My heart was given to me by a 20-year old girl, whose life was cut short in a car accident. She gave me a second chance and I will honor her by living my life well. You won’t find someone more driven for a healthy lifestyle than I am, because honoring my organ donor is the greatest motivation of all.