A Grateful Heart

Writer Jan Haag (right) with Don DeVorss and Donate Life volunteer Cora Johnson for his heart
Writer Jan Haag (right) with Don DeVorss and Donate Life volunteer Cora Johnson. Photo by Dick Schmidt.

Don DeVorss knew he didn’t have long to live. Struggling to breathe, he walked alone at Folsom Point State Park in January 2019, looking out at the setting sun reflecting on Folsom Lake.

“I was thinking, ‘I can’t see myself making it much longer.’ I took a picture of the sunset over the dam,” says the longtime El Dorado Hills resident. He was deep in heart failure.

He was 62 years old, had survived a massive heart attack and later lost a lung, but he’d been told by his cardiologist, “If you can walk into a heart transplant, you’ll be able to walk out.”

“That’s why I was walking every night,” he says. “A quarter mile—I couldn’t even. But I love being outdoors—and breathe the fresh air. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to have many more of these sunsets.’”

DeVorss had only recently qualified to be on the list for a heart transplant at Stanford. Too soon for a donor heart, he and his wife, Julie, figured. But when he got home from his walk, his phone rang. It was Stanford.

“‘We have a heart for you that we think is an excellent match,’” DeVorss heard. “I went silent because they had told me it could be up to six months. It was to the day three weeks.”

DeVorss and wife, Julie
Don DeVorss and wife, Julie.

They had four hours to get to Stanford; it took the DeVorsses two hours and 15 minutes. And, after his successful 13-hour transplant surgery and months of recovery, he began to envision what became Donor Gratitude, a nonprofit that allows organ recipients to express their thanks for the gift of lifesaving transplants. The website also serves as a place where living donors and donor families can hear from people they have helped save.

“Grateful was the first word that came to mind when I started to think seriously about creating a place to thank all of those who help make this type of miracle come true,” says DeVorss, who, before his heart failure, owned a nursery and landscape construction business.

In August, DeVorss made what he calls his first Tour of Gratitude, sharing stories from his website with transplant hospitals and OPOs (organ procurement organizations), and ending in San Diego at the 2022 Donate Life Transplant Games.

He says he cannot show his appreciation enough and believes that people heal faster and stronger if they have a place to show their gratitude “to all of those who make our gift of life come true.”

For more information, go to donorgratitude.org.