Two-time heart transplant recipient honored at VCU game

Two-time heart transplant recipient honored at VCU game
Jeni Simonitis with her husband Jason at the VCU game (Source: NBC12)

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - With tears streaming down her face, Jeni Simonitis stood proudly alongside her husband before thousands of screaming fans as she was honored by VCU, the university she graduated from. The university that saved her life - twice.

Before heading to the game at VCU, Jeni and her husband Jason enjoyed some pizza together. They appreciate these little moments more than ever now.

When Jeni was eight years old, her heart failed her due to a birth defect. She had a heart transplant at VCU and lived a relatively normal life - until the end of last year, when her transplanted heart started failing her.

She'd need yet another miracle, but "it's a matter of supply," said Dr. Daniel Tang.

Dr. Tang performed Jeni's recent transplant at VCU Health Systems.

"Despite campaigns to increase organ donor awareness, they've only been modestly successful," Dr. Tang said.

Lucky for Jeni and Jason, she is one of the three percent of transplant recipients in the entire world to match for another new heart.

"We got the call, and here we are," Jeni remembered.

Nearly 25 years to the day from her first heart transplant, Jeni was back at VCU for another.

"It's hard to talk about. What if we got into surgery and something happens?" she said.

Her husband continued the thought, "you don't know if you're ever going to speak - like if you're going to have a chance to talk to your wife again."

Jason says they had no time to dwell. Time was too precious.

They got the call, and in the beat of a heart, Jeni was in the operating room with Dr. Tang. Jason was waiting with her family, praying for that chance to talk to his wife again.

"He was strong for all of my family and friends, and he helped me communicate to the doctors when I had my surgery. He helped me get my breathing tube out quickly," Jeni described through tears, "I knew I was going to see you right when I came out. There wasn't any doubt in my mind."

At the VCU basketball game Valentine's night, Jeni's story is the centerpiece of the team she's cheered for her entire life.

She was surprised with a game ball signed by the players she adores - the star Rams players now a fan of hers, cheering on her story of perseverance and love.

"This was just kind of a jolt back to remind us to appreciate small things and appreciate one another, and don't forget to tell everybody you love them and hug, because you never know what the next day's going to bring," Jeni said.

Back at home, Jeni's phone rings.

"Oh my god, more?!" she says excitedly into the phone.

It's a call from her nurse with another victory in her journey. Her blood work came back strong, and she can cut back on medicine. Her heart is doing well.

A reminder about what - or who - is really important on Valentine's Day.

"There are small wins - like medicine decreasing, or being able to stand the entire time in the shower without having to sit, or biopsy results - and you know, just the confirmations along the road to recovery, that this heart is in a new home and it's the right home, and it's hopefully going to give us another 25 years. These are big milestones that we're very thankful for," Jeni said.

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