Ralph Perry's heart belongs to a 32-year-old woman named Suzanne. And even though they never met, an everlasting bond exists between them.
Six years ago, a lifesaving transplant forever linked Suzanne and her family to Perry and his wife, Marji.
Suzanne died after suffering from an aneurism, and because she designated herself as an organ donor, Perry and two other people received the gift of life. In the photos he has seen of Suzanne, she is a Southern California girl with a sunny personality, surrounded by family.
Suzanne's vibrant personality stood in contrast to Perry's worsening condition. He had an ashen pallor and swollen legs. He couldn't breathe and was waiting, at any minute, to die of heart failure.
In spite of her apparent good health, Suzanne complained of headaches throughout her life and on New Year's Day 2001, she collapsed. Family members rushed her to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, but it was too late. By the time she arrived, the blood ceased to flow to her brain.
For several days, her family kept her on life support, but on Jan. 5, it was over.
Perry and his wife, Marji, then living in Las Vegas, Nev. received the call that would change his life.
"The telephone rang," he said. "They said they're taking your donor to the surgery room. They have the heart and it's a good heart and it's a go."
Hours later, Perry was strapped to an operating table with his chest cut open, ready to receive a new heart.
"You have no idea how fast it happens," Perry said. "It was a perfect match."
Within two and a half hours, Suzanne's legacy continued in Perry's body.
"When the doctors took the clamps off, it started beating immediately," Marji added.
A day after the surgery, Perry was up and around. His health improved immediately and for the first time in years, he felt good. He felt normal.
"It's like someone turned on the switch. It was a miracle," he said.
Perry was diagnosed with a condition known as cardiomyopathy -- a thickening of the heart's walls. It causes congestive heart failure, and because the blood can't circulate, Perry suffered from edema, poor circulation and the imminent threat of a life-ending heart attack.
"The heart was fully diseased and enlarged," he said. "I was tired and very gray. There were a lot of times the nurses said I wouldn't make it to morning."
He sat on the donor waiting list a comparably short time -- one and a half years.
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network -- the national donor warehouse of the nearly 3,000 Americans waiting for heart transplants -- many hold on for two to three years. The majority of people lingering for a heart transplant, however, wait for more than five years to receive a new heart. Most of those patients die in the process.
Perry's heart problems started in the early 1990s.
The couple knew something was wrong when Perry suffered a series of heart attacks. A seven-way bypass, angioplasties and the implantation of a pacemaker/defibrillator combination did little to alleviate Perry's illness. As the years passed, his condition worsened.
Doctors said they couldn't do much to help him, but then a specialist the Perrys revere as an angel came into their lives.
"The hardest part of a transplant is knowing someone had to die so I could live," Perry said.
"You don't know if you should be happy or if you should be sad," Marji added.
To this day, talking about the family elicits strong emotions, and when that happens, Marji takes over.
The Perrys and Suzanne's family have established an extraordinary relationship over the past half-decade. Creating a relationship with Suzanne's family took years. Now the Perrys visit Southern California twice a year. Suzanne's mother doesn't let Perry out of her sight. She's always by his side, feeling his pulse and touching his chest so she can feel her daughter's life thriving in his body. She even carries a stethoscope to listen to Suzanne's heart.
"If something happens to him, it's like they lose her all over again," Marji said.
To become a donor, designate your wishes on your driver's license and on paper, but most of all, talk about your decision with your family beforehand. For more information on organ donation, visit www.optn.org.