A New Definition of “High School Sweetheart”
“I look forward to that time when I can come back here for dinner and sit with my new friends that I have made. I don’t know how I would have made it through these past three months without this place…” – MaryAnn Finlay
Their love story started in high school art history class and continued 30 years later when MaryAnn discovered Joe needed a lung transplant to survive.
After dating on and off in high school, Joe Finlay was called away for his work in the United States Army. Life intervened and sent MaryAnn and Joe in different directions. Besides the occasional phone call, they lead very separate lives with their individual work and family.
Fast forward 30 years, MaryAnn, living in New Jersey, had a dream where she saw Joe with an oxygen hose in his nose. She decided to call Joe, who was living in Virginia at the time, only to find that Joe really was sick. He had been diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis, an incurable disease.
“I told Mary that she was not going to have much of a future with me—the doctors told me I only had two years to live,” said Joe.
After talking daily, they decided together, “No more missed chances, and no more regrets. Life is too short. Nobody knows what is going to happen today or even tomorrow.”
They were married that same year. “We said no more wasting time. We are soul mates.”
After the couple married, Joe‘s condition worsened and in 2013 he was diagnosed with a bacterial pneumonia. He also had developed bladder cancer—meaning he had to wait an additional two years before being placed on the waiting list for a transplant. And as those two years progressed, the worse his condition became.
The couple eventually traveled to Philadelphia for preliminary transplant testing. They were thankful to be able to stay at Gift of Life Howie’s House during those long two weeks of testing –and MaryAnn especially appreciated that she could be by her husband’s side to care for all his needs. “He was very bad at that point where every five minutes I was running to him with an emergency breathing bag.” MaryAnn explains.
Acting as the permanent caregiver to her husband, MaryAnn says, “It is important to know that the pain and suffering that the caregiver goes through is just as bad as the pain and suffering that the patient goes through. Even though we are not going through the physical aspect, it’s the emotional aspect—that when I see this man who was so strong and could do everything, is now deteriorated to where he cannot even pull the covers over his shoulders. I would just cry myself to sleep.”
After Joe and MaryAnn returned home from Philadelphia for that initial testing, Joe’s conditioned declined drastically. MaryAnn rushed Joe to their local hospital and quickly learned that, other than hospice, there was nothing that they could do. So MaryAnn drove Joe back to the hospital in Philadelphia, where he was admitted immediately. He would not leave the hospital until he had his transplant.
Joe received his gift of life, a lung transplant, just two weeks later on March 4th 2016. MaryAnn was able to be by his side at the hospital every single day, thanks to her “home away from home” at the Howie’s House.
“It is a hard journey for all transplant patients—it’s painful and it’s hard. And if I can stress enough—they must have a support system. I was there [at the hospital] every single day. My focus was on Joe and getting him through this hard time,” explains MaryAnn.
Although Joe’s memory is a bit cloudy from his post-transplant complications, he remembers MaryAnn and her smiling face every day while he was in the hospital. Joe says “She came every day. I told her, keep bringing that beautiful smile and everything will be alright. And she did.” He remained at the hospital for two months following his transplant.
During those long months while Joe was hospitalized, MaryAnn found comfort at Gift of Life Howie’s House. “I don’t know how I would have made it through without that place. I would take the shuttle every morning, be there from 8 o’clock to 4 o’clock at night, come back and eat my dinner.”
MaryAnn recounts how when she first arrived she would sit alone in the dining room decompressing from a long day at the hospital. However, as the weeks turned to months, she started making friends with all her fellow guests. “We would all join together and tell each other stories of what was happening with our family members. Sometimes we would cry together. I met wonderful friends here! I started to look forward to that time when I could come here at dinner and sit with my new friends that I have made here. I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else.”
In May of 2016, MaryAnn and Joe Finlay were finally able to return home to New Jersey. They say this experience has made them even stronger – as individuals, and as a couple.
Are you – or someone you know – in need of resources specific to caregivers of transplant patients, like MaryAnn? Visit our Caregiver Lifeline page for more information to help guide you and your loved ones through the transplant journey. Or check out our new Transplant Caregiver Support Group on Facebook by clicking here