Oregon native Natalie Cummerow was an instructor in the optometric ophthalmic technology department at Owens Community College in the early 1990s when all of a sudden, everything went dark.
Cummerow, whose job was to teach students how to make eyeglasses and how to do preliminary vision testing on patients, was grading papers when her vision…disappeared.
“It was gone for 45 minutes and then it was back,” she said. “I knew it was serious, just from working in that field.”
Cummerow learned that her vision loss was caused by a blood clot that had formed in her eye. There was still more bad news to come for Cummerow, who at that time was married and raising three children ages 2, 5 and 8.
She needed a heart transplant – at age 34.
“I got to the point where I was functioning like a 90-year-old person,” she said. “It was very hard for me because I'm a very active person. I sat around and watched people; I couldn't play with my kids too much. People from my church came over and cooked and cleaned and watched my children when I took a nap. After being so active, it was hard to sit around and watch.”
Cummerow, who graduated from Clay High School in 1977, said the thought of undergoing heart transplant surgery was a unique experience.
“Knowing that someone actually had to die for me to keep on living was a hard thing for me,” she said. “The only thing that got me through it was I have an extremely strong faith in God. I had given my life to Him 10 years prior to that. Whatever His plan was for me, I was fine.”
On Dec. 16, Cummerow told her story to teacher Jackie Stanton’s sixth grade students at Fassett Middle School.
Stanton's class, which is comprised of 10- and 11-year-olds, had read a book called “Searching For David's Heart.” The book tells the story of a girl whose brother dies after getting hit by a car and the family gives his body for organ donation. The girl then goes on a search to find her brother's heart.
Stanton said Life Connection of Ohio had been dropping off information on organ donation to Fassett Middle School for several years.
“They said they can do presentations,” Stanton said, “but I had never had a connection for a field trip or an in-class visit. I looked them up and called Kara Steele, who at that time did the classroom visitations for Life Connection. She gave me Jamie Adams' number, and Jamie came in and did a presentation and talked about organ donation. She passed around a jar that contained a real cornea.
“Natalie has been one of my friends and I taught her boys in school, and when I learned about her heart transplant, it was an amazing connection. I had Life Connection come in for the technical side of organ donation, and I had Natalie come in and share her personal side.”
Cummerow spoke to the students for 40 minutes, and Stanton said she felt her friend made a connection with the youngsters.
“Hearing Natalie's story, they were really caring,” Stanton said. “Natalie does a nice job of telling her story, about how she was a young mother of three and had the heart of a 90-year-old, and she was in her 30s. The kids' reaction was, their mouths just dropped open.
“Life Connection does a nice job of doing a technical version of it, and Natalie's story brings it all together. At the end we said, 'How many of you think you will donate?' and most of them put up their hands up saying they would do it, knowing how many lives they could save.”
Cummerow has had her new heart since 1994, and she has enjoyed a healthy lifestyle ever since. She continues to play co-ed softball, and she is re-marrying in April.
Cummerow had been on an organ donor list for nearly three months when the Medical College of Ohio called and said it had a heart for her. She received the heart of a 23-year-old man who had died in a motorcycle accident.
Cummerow was 34 at the time of the transplant, and she has made public appearances promoting organ donation ever since.
“I sing at donor recognition ceremonies and I share my story at women's groups and luncheons,” Cummerow said. “I feel like I've been given a gift and a second chance, and I should do whatever I can to promote this.”
Cummerow said she was impressed with the reception she received from Stanton's sixth-graders.
“What amazed me about those kids, Jackie really prepared them,” Cummerow said. “I had them guess what type of transplant I had, and they were really informed and they asked really good questions. They asked questions I don't think an adult would ask me. They were amazing to me, and they seemed to really enjoy it.”