As one mother was burying her only child, her friend, a mother of three, was preparing to undergo life-saving surgery.
Tanisha Basham, 41, from University Park, Ill., was a supervisor at a local grocery store. Always high-energy, Tanisha became sick in 2013. With her energy depleted and struggling to breathe, Tanisha underwent medical tests, which revealed she had congestive heart failure – the same condition that took her mother’s life at age 48. With her heart functioning at only 25 percent of its capacity, Tanisha was hospitalized multiple times and had numerous complications, including dangerous blood clots.
Added to the heart transplant waiting list in December 2013, Tanisha underwent surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device, or VAD, that helped to pump blood through her ailing body — a bridge procedure until a suitable donor was found.
After a long 18 months on the waiting list, in June 2015, Tanisha received word that her friend, Vicki Olds—a mother from Crown Point, Indiana, was giving her the gift of life – the heart of her recently deceased teenage daughter.
Earlier that month, 18-year-old Domonique “Nikki” Smith, died unexpectedly. A college student with a bright future ahead of her, Nikki was a tutor and mentor to fellow students. She spoke French fluently. She listened to Andrea Bocelli and proudly sang along in Italian at the tender age of three. And when she took to the stage herself, she brought down the house with her enthusiastic performances.
Nikki’s mom, Vicki, and Tanisha, were friends who had become like family. Vicki and Tanisha’s older sister have been best friends for 35 years. Tanisha’s nick-name for Nikki was “niecy-poo.”
“I was overwhelmed,” Tanisha recalls. “I told Vicki, ‘I can’t accept this.’ But she told me, ‘Tanisha, you’re like my sister. You’ll always have my baby with you.’”
Life Saving Gift
Tanisha was the first person Vicki thought of when trying to make some good come from Nikki’s death. “She has three of her own children who need their mother,” Vicki explains. “She needs to be able to live her life.”
Under the care of her advanced heart failure cardiologist, Dr. William Cotts, blood tests showed that Nikki’s heart was a perfect match for Tanisha, and she was immediately admitted to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., for transplantation surgery with Drs. Antone Tatooles and Patroklos (Pat) Pappas.
Two weeks later, Tanisha was back home with her family. And as she continues to regain her strength, she looks forward to resuming the many tasks her daughters took care of during her long wait for a heart. She also plans to cherish every moment as a mother, as a friend and as the keeper of Nikki’s lasting legacy.
Tanisha keeps Nikki’s photo as a screensaver on her smartphone as a constant reminder of who gave her a second chance at life. And when she goes to her frequent echocardiogram appointments, Vicki accompanies her so she can see her daughter’s heart beating in the body of her friend.
In all, Nikki saved the lives of five individuals as an organ donor, including another family friend who received one of her kidneys in a second directed donation – an organ donation made to a chosen recipient – an extreme rarity in donation cases.
“Before this, I had never heard of anyone receiving a directed heart organ donation,” said Dr. Tatooles. “To lose your daughter and yet use that tragic event to save lives though organ donation is incredibly generous. There is no better gift than giving someone the gift of life.”
“I carried Nikki for nine months, and Tanisha’s going to carry her for the rest of her life,” Vicki says. “When I was living through my worst nightmare on the worst day of my life, I chose to preserve the lives of others.”
Since her daughter’s tragic death, Vicki has been working tirelessly to change misconceptions about organ donation.