Special Assignment: Change of Heart

By: Kate Tillotson Email
By: Kate Tillotson Email

December 26, 2006

VIDALIA, Ga.---3,000 transplants are done each year in the United States, but we rarely meet the people behind them. In this Special Assignment, we introduce you to a Georgia couple celebrating perhaps the biggest gift either has ever received.

Cheryl Cottle and Sonny Graham are in love, and their story starts in the least likely of places: an operating room.

"It was very easy to fall in love with him," Cheryl told News 12.

But nothing was easy about their journey. In fact, this couple shares an intimate secret that runs deep--so deep not even those in the medical field can explain it.

It began in 1988 when Cheryl married then-husband Terry Cottle in Charleston, South Carolina.

"Friends and family were his top priority. There was nothing he wouldn't do for any of them," Cheryl said.

The Cottles were happy. Terry worked as an EMT and was active in the community, even coaching his son's baseball team. But on March 16, 1995, that family life would be flipped upside down.

"It s still really hard for me and the kids to talk about," Cheryl said.

Terry was rushed to the hospital after being hit by a bullet. There, doctors declared him brain dead.

Cheryl then made one of the hardest decisions of her life: to donate her husband's organs.

Nancy Kay is the founder of Lifepoint, Inc.

"We work specifically with donor families to make sure they understand the donation process...that they understand what's going to take place," she explained.

In total, five of Terry's organs were matched with recipients. Among them was 57-year-old Sonny Graham.

"My heart rate had gone down to about 38 beats a minute, and that s way below normal," Sonny said.

Sonny was given just six months to live. His only chance of survival was a heart transplant.

"My minister walked up beside the bed as they were taking me to O.R., and he said, 'You're not afraid, are you?' I said, 'Not in the least'."

Five days after Terry's accident, Sonny underwent surgery at Charleston's Medical University Hospital. It was a success; doctors replaced his heart with Terry's.

Months later, Sonny wrote a letter to Cheryl, thanking her. That letter would spark a storm of affection, and eventually the two agreed to meet.

"It was like he just knew who I was instantaneously, and we had an immediate bond," Cheryl said. "It was incredible."

"I couldn't believe what was going through my whole body," Sonny said.

It was a gut feeling that neither expected and neither could deny.

"She was different," Sonny said.

The same woman who had given him his heart had stolen it.

"This is a love story," Kay said. "And it's a love story for mankind. She didn't know who these organs would be going to."

Today, the couple is married. They've been married for two years and lead a simple life in southeast Georgia.

And Sonny swears that at each sight of Cheryl, his heart still skips a beat.

"It's a relationship that a lot of people should have," he said.

Over 94,000 people are in the same shoes Sonny was just eleven years ago, waiting for an organ transplant. There are over 700 in South Carolina alone. If you're interested in learning more about organ donations, visit your local DMV to pick up a donor card, or visit lifepoint-sc.org.

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