At the age of 19, he ended his life, but gave his heart to someone else.
Cameron Burleson died on New Year’s Day in 2009 while studying architectural engineering at Prairie View A&M University. He made the honor roll every year and led a life of athletic stardom, winning scores of medals in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles, and finishing a touchdown short of clinching the football state championship. His father fondly recalls how, even as a young boy, Cameron could never keep still, “running and jumping and always trying to go somewhere.”
Today, the Austin, Texas, native is still going somewhere as his heart beats for Jamie Napolitano in Destrehan, Louisiana. The mother of one-year-old twins had been dying of cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease.
22 people die every day in the US waiting for an organ.
“I lived with heart disease my entire life, so shortness of breath, coughing all night long, poor circulation, tons of medication and doctor appointments . . . those were just the norm for me,” said Jamie, who had never been allowed to play sports like basketball, soccer, or track.
At the age of 19, she suffered her first heart attack.
Over the next 12 years, she had three defibrillators, plus angiograms, ablations, countless medications, and found out her heart wouldn’t survive a pregnancy. (Her sister acted as her surrogate.) Finally, the doctors informed her she had run out of options.
“I was devastated when I was told that I should be placed on the list for a heart transplant. All I could think about was that my children weren’t even two years old, and they could lose their mother,” said Jamie. She had worked in a transplant center, and watched countless patients not get their transplant in time.
By Christmastime 2008, she was dying, flying in and out of the hospital due to extremely high blood pressure and procedural complications until doctors finally made her check into the hospital permanently to sit and wait. On New Year’s Day at 5:30 p.m., Jamie’s new vital organ arrived, thanks to Cameron.
“I was nervous and excited initially, but I felt a great sense of peace before going into the operation room at 1 a.m. This was my chance for a healthier life with my family. When I woke up after the surgery, I knew it worked,” said Jamie.
Since her transplant eight years ago, Jaime won her first-ever sports medal at the age of 40, clinching two gold medals, a silver, and a bronze at the 2014 Transplant Games of America, a biennial event where transplant recipients compete against each other.Poll: Are you a registered organ donor?
“Cameron, he just keeps bringing the medals,” Jamie beamed.
More than 120,000 people, 2,000 of whom are Louisianans, remain on the organ waiting list, and every 10 minutes another name is added.
She has also run four half-marathons, and can now keep up with her kids, Brady and Reese, who have just turned nine.
“I think every day about things I used to take for granted. I’m grateful I get to do things with my husband, and my kids, and my family, and I’m grateful I get to do things with Janice and Royal,” said Jamie with tears in her eyes, “They’re family, too.”
Janice and Royal Burleson, Cameron’s parents, met Jamie after exchanging letters for about a year and chatting on the phone one Saturday afternoon in 2013. “I’ll never forget that phone call. As soon as we heard each other’s voices, we both just started to cry,” recalled Janice of talking with Jamie.
The two families finally decided to meet in person at the 2014 Transplant Games of America in Houston, Texas, where Jamie would be competing. When they found each other outside the track, Jamie brought them into a private room and pulled out a stethoscope so Janice and Royal could hear their son’s heartbeat.
“Every day I prayed that I would meet Cameron’s heart recipient. I just prayed and prayed and prayed. Then to hear his heart beating again, I was just so overwhelmed, knowing that part of him lives through someone else. God answered my prayers,” said Janice.
Now the two families call each other family. Royal and Janice drive to Louisiana for all sorts of occasions, such as surprising Jamie’s husband, Gary, for his 50th birthday, visiting Jamie’s twins for their school’s Grandparents Day, catching a Cowboys vs. Saints game, or speaking for the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency in New Orleans to share their story. Jamie, her husband, her kids, and even her parents also go to their share of Austin, Texas-based events, including the Out of the Darkness Walk by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I got to introduce Jamie as Cameron’s heart recipient to all the people at the walk who’ve also lost someone to suicide, show the full circle of life, and how Cameron lives on,” said Janice, who lost her son to suicide only a few months after he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She and Royal are now one of the top five fundraisers in Austin for the suicide prevention walk. The money goes to schools to bolster their mental health services.
“We lost our son, but in some ways, we have new heart,” said Janice.
Nothing really captures the full circle of life and heart for Janice and Royal like watching Jamie compete in the Transplant Games, which they love to attend. The two walk around the track capturing every moment on their phones and cameras, celebrating “these great days” and watching their son run through Jamie, which Royal describes as a miracle.
“It feels great. It’s awesome to see the results. It changes the way you feel. It changes the way you think. This whole thing that we’re experiencing is a conundrum of uplifting spirits. So uplifting it’s just difficult to describe,” said Royal as he paused to fight back tears. “It’s all inside the soul.”
In honor of Royal’s birthday, and as a token of their immense gratitude, Jamie and her family presented Cameron’s parents with all her medals from the 2014 Transplant Games of America right before the 2016 Transplant Games kicked off. They’d been neatly framed around a high school photo of Cameron, with a line underneath it that read, “The Heart of a Champion.”
Organ disease remains a massive public health issue, but a single person can save up to eight lives through organ donation and improve the lives of more than 100 others through tissue donation. Everything from the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, and small intestines, to tissues such as the corneas, skin, veins, heart valves, tendons, ligaments, and bones, can give a fellow American a new lease on life.
“I try to pay it forward by actively volunteering with LOPA (Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, the nonprofit responsible for the state’s donor registry and recovering organs and tissue) and encourage everyone to register as a donor,” said Jamie
If you’d like to register as a donor or learn more about organ and tissue donation, go to www.lopa.org.