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At 40, the beat goes on

WARNER ROBINS --

Malia Veator wears a heart necklace every day.

It is a reminder of the heart that now beats inside her.

Today is her 40th birthday. The big four-oh. The traditional threshold between young adulthood and middle age.

Malia made it.

She expects she may receive some good-natured “over the hill” birthday cards. She might inspire a few black armbands on her behalf.

After all, 40 is a milestone. She will embrace it, just as she has embraced the past 892 days of this new beat on life.

For the past two years, she has quietly celebrated a different kind of birthday.

On March 7, 2010, she received a heart transplant. She now has enough breath to blow out the candles.

She was 30 when she was diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition. In those moments of fear and doubt and hospital rooms, she wondered if she would live to see her 40th birthday.

The past three weeks have been an emotional firecracker. On Aug. 2, she and her husband, Tommy, sent their 5-year-old son, Trevor, off to school for his first day of kindergarten at Quail Run Elementary.

It was the day after the family returned from Grand Rapids, Mich., where Malia won five medals -- three gold, one silver and a bronze -- in her own Olympic competition. She was one of the almost 1,000 athletes who competed in Transplant Games, held in the U.S. every two years.

The motto of the Transplant Games is, appropriately enough, “Celebrating the Gift of Life.’’

It is the reason she wears the heart necklace.

Malia never played competitive sports at Northside High School, where she graduated in 1990. Still, she was faithful about her exercise habits. She attended aerobics classes. She kept regular appointments at the gym. She was health conscious and watched her diet.

After she and Tommy had been married two years, they had planned to start a family. But Malia noticed she was becoming increasingly tired and sluggish. She would easily give out of breath. Sometimes her heart seemed to be slowing down. Other times it felt like it was at the Kentucky Derby.

Medical tests determined her heart was operating at about one-third of its capacity. Even with medication, it would only improve to about one-half. Decisions would have to be made.

She was stunned. Especially when the doctor evoked the “worst-case scenario” -- a heart transplant.

Still, Malia believed those chances were remote. She had to have a defibrillator. Eventually, she required open heart surgery.

She and Tommy adopted a child. Trevor, who was born in Guatemala, came into their lives in July 2008, when he was 13 months old.

“I was so focused with him and staying busy that I actually started doing better,’’ she said.

Because it was risky for her to lift Trevor, she taught him to crawl up and down the stairs and climb into the car by himself.

Two years ago, her health declined to the point that she was placed on a heart transplant list. The 4:30 a.m. phone call came in early March. Their bags were already packed for Emory in Atlanta in preparation of the eight-hour operation.

The medical staff would later describe her recovery as “amazing.’’ She would walk the halls in her green-frog bathrobe, moving so fast they started calling her the “Green Flash.’’’

She got her color back. Her friends and family complimented her on the return of her rosy cheeks.’’

However, the beat of her new heart carried a somber reminder. Her joy was tempered with the reality that there was an empty seat at someone’s supper table.

All Malia was told about her donor was that she was 35 years old and had lived in Georgia.

“I was 37 when I had the transplant, so we were close in age,’’ she said. “She might have been a mother with children.’’

It took her six months to summon the courage to write the woman’s family.

“It’s the most difficult letter I have ever written,’’ she said.

She never heard back. She figures maybe one day she will.

Maybe then she will tell them about the gold medals she won in the 5K (3.1 miles) run, 1,500 meters and doubles tennis. She captured a silver in the 800 meters and a bronze in basketball.

Malia wasn’t a devoted runner until after the transplant. Nor had she played much competitive tennis. She took third overall among women in her division.

Her family enjoyed watching the Summer Olympics from London, but Malia is not one to boast about her medals. She keeps them in a drawer. She doesn’t wear them around her neck and show them off when she goes to the grocery store.

She does wear the heart necklace, though.

She has been asked to speak at a transplant conference in Atlanta in November. Her goal is to educate the public about organ donation. An organ donor can save up to eight lives with vital organs. The quality of another 50 lives can be improved with the use of eye and skin transplants.

“Some people think transplant patients need organs because they didn’t take care of themselves,’’ she said. “That’s not always true. I have never smoked or drank. I exercised and took good care of myself. And I still got sick.’’

Every day is special, not just her 40th birthday.

Said Malia: “I want to make the most out of the gift I have been given.’’

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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