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A new heart for Kelly Jones

The last year has been a life-and-death roller coaster ride for 22-year-old Kelly Jones and her family. In a short time, Jones went from being a seemingly healthy college student to relying on a battery-operated gadget to sustain her life to receiving a new heart after being on the transplant list for just 12 days.

Last August, Jones, experiencing fatigue and congestion, checked herself into the hospital where she worked part-time while attending North Georgia College and State University. Doctors discovered she had a congenital heart defect causing congestive heart failure.

When medicine couldn't control the situation, she underwent open-heart surgery, spending a harrowing month in ICU at St. Joseph's, to have a Left Ventricle Assist Device implanted to circulate blood through her heart. Even with "George," as she christened her LVAD, Jones' condition merited 1A status on the transplant list.

"Kelly was deteriorating so quickly and neither my wife nor I had any control or power to help. We felt completely helpless," said her father, Robert Jones.

After a 60-day waiting period following the open-heart surgery, Jones was put back on the transplant list, but her doctors warned it could be at least a six to 12 month wait.

On the morning of May 15, Jones said she was contacted wanting to know if she was open to "an at-risk behavior heart," meaning the person has had a lifestyle where they could contract HIV or hepatitis. "I said no thanks. I appreciate it, but I'm too young for that," said Jones.

The 2006 RCHS honors graduate, who now lives in Cumming, had come to Conyers that day for a baby shower and to catch up with friends. Later that night as they were leaving the movie theater she received the call to report to St. Joseph's immediately - there was a healthy heart waiting for her.

Though some loved ones she called right before the transplant were crying, Jones said surprisingly she wasn't afraid or worried; in fact she assured them she would be just fine. She remembered laughing and joking with one of the guys in the operating room about her tight grip on George - her only fear was dropping "him" while getting on the operating table.

"I was more excited than scared...and hopeful feeling motivated to get this done so I could move on with my life. I was a happy person that night," she said. Just weeks after the surgery, Jones said, "I'm not in any pain. It feels like nothing is wrong. I feel like I can do whatever I want. I feel more upbeat. I can do more, I can help. I have more energy." Though she's on a rigorous schedule of doctors' visits and anti-rejection medication for the next six months, she's excited about getting the all-clear to drive by the end of the month. She will resume her criminal justice studies in the fall.

Jones would like to help raise awareness not only about organ donation, but also to campaign for echocardiograms to be a requirement for high school sports physicals. While at RCHS, she remembers a football player dying suddenly during practice from a condition like hers. She participated in Marine Corps ROTC during high school and said she is grateful she didn't meet with a similar fate.

Gratitude is a recurring theme for the Jones family this year. During the darkest hours, they experienced the love and support of family and friends. Back in April, the "Give a Heart Benefit Ride and Concert" was held at Granite Mountain Harley Davidson to help raise money for Jones' medical expenses. According to Dawn Meridith, a family friend who helped organize the event, they raised $1,700, hopefully along with awareness of the importance of organ donation.

Ultimately, her father credits their happy ending to the person who elected to donate their organs. "I wish I had the ability to personally thank the donor's family. We have been granted a second chance to be with our daughter because of the kindness, the generosity and an unselfish gesture by the donor," said Robert Jones.