‘Heart sisters’ bond lives on, even after one’s death

Niki Glass and Karen Tompkins formed an unbreakable bond while awaiting heart transplants at Northwestern Memorial Hospital three years ago.

Nicknaming themselves the “heart sisters,” they supported one another through holidays spent away from home, hundreds of needle pokes and IV drips, and the bittersweet day when Tompkins sobbed with guilt over receiving her donated heart first.

At the time, Glass assured her friend that she felt nothing but joy for her, and that her turn would come eventually. She was right: Both women had new hearts by Valentine’s Day 2015.

But on the third anniversary of her own transplant Feb. 1, it was Glass who lamented the bittersweet way life has evolved.

After two healthy years post-transplant, Tompkins died in January 2017, at the age of 53. Glass, 40, who said she misses her friend every day, has vowed to do all she can with her own second chance at life. She started a foundation that brings comfort and financial help to heart transplant patients. She reminds herself to stay grateful and present at her children’s basketball games and clarinet concerts. And she keeps in close contact with Tompkins’ surviving daughters.

The American Heart Association has named Glass its Passion Survivor, an ambassador role in which she will retell the story of her friendship with Tompkins in videos, advertisements and before hundreds of attendees at an annual fundraiser later this month, which is American Heart Month. The surviving “heart sister” said she hopes to encourage patients, educate the public about heart disease in women and remind people everywhere that some chance meetings turn into bonds that last a lifetime — and beyond.

“The connection me and Karen had was different. It was a different level,” Glass said. “I wish it was a lot longer, but I can’t forget her. Because the more I talk about my story, she was a part of that. She’s always going to be around.”

Glass, who suffered a heart attack at age 36, had been waiting for a donor match for almost four months when Tompkins was admitted to the hospital, also in need of transplant.

Since the first human heart transplant was performed in 1967, the procedure has been offered at major hospitals across the country, with about 2,300 nationwide each year, said Dr. Allen S. Anderson, medical director for Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Center for Heart Failure, who treated both women.

Heart transplants have positive outcomes for patients who would otherwise die from heart failure. About 90 percent of heart transplant patients survive a year after the surgery. And if they survive that first year, those transplant recipients have a 50 percent chance of living another 15 years, Anderson said.

After their transplants, Glass went home to Aurora, Ill., while Tompkins returned to Country Club Hills, Ill., to regain strength. At first, both women were required to take dozens of anti-rejection pills daily, in addition to frequent doctors’ appointments to make sure their bodies were adjusting to the new hearts. But in time, visits with their cardiologists decreased to every four months.

Glass returned to her event-planning business, took a part-time job at a Naperville jewelry store and began a foundation called Niki’s Heart, which uses donations to buy and deliver blankets to heart patients at Northwestern Memorial’s cardiac unit and pediatric heart patients at Lurie Children’s Hospital at Christmastime.

Because she knows how expensive it can be for families to pay for parking while visiting loved ones at Northwestern Memorial’s cardiac intensive care unit, she is working to expand the foundation to collect funds and negotiate cheaper rates for family members at nearby parking garages. “When you have someone in the critical care unit, things can kind of be touch and go,” Glass said. “Everybody wants to see you but can’t get to you because not everybody can get downtown and pay for parking.”

Meanwhile, Tompkins returned to work at the Ford assembly plant in Chicago while also planning bridal showers and parties for friends of her four daughters, and encouraging her youngest daughter through her final year of high school.

“She was literally back to the same ol’ regular mom, like nothing had happened,” said Ta’ah Tompkins, 19. “She was back to doing all the things she loved again.”

The “heart sisters” never went a week without at least a text, Facebook chat or visit. If one woman mentioned she was heading back to the hospital to be treated for a virus, the other teased that she’d better make it quick because neither needed to log any more hospital time. And when Glass worried to Tompkins that her oldest son, Marquis, wanted to skip his high school prom, the friends came up with a made-for-TV solution: The “heart sisters’” children would go together.

Glass bought Ta’ah’s custom-made dress and matching shoes, and hosted an elaborate pre-prom picture party for the teens and their parents. While their children were at the dance, Glass and Tompkins ate food from Portillo’s, watched movies and talked for hours, just like their early days in hospital rooms.

In turn, Marquis and Ta’ah grew to become close friends who remain in touch even now, as Marquis is in his sophomore year at Northern Illinois University and Ta’ah is a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It’s kind of like a brother-sister thing, just because our families are so close,” Ta’ah said.

Six months after that prom date, Tompkins, whose body was rejecting the heart transplant, was back in the hospital for treatment. Tompkins had to spend that Thanksgiving in the hospital, so Glass and her husband brought turkey, stuffing and all of Tompkins’ favorites to her bedside.

Heart transplants can result in several complications, including rejection, which can often be treated with medication; blocked arteries; and increased risk of cancer, Anderson said.

In January 2017, Tompkins was admitted to the hospital again. Glass planned to keep her friend company as soon as doctors gave clearance for visitors. But the usual anti-rejection treatments weren’t working. Three days later, Glass received a text message from Ta’ah that made her own heart drop: Mom’s gone.

“We never talked about that. We never accepted that was an option,” said Glass, who said Tompkins’ funeral was almost too much to bear. “There were people walking up to me, hugging me. I don’t know who these people were but they would say, ‘I know who you are, you’re her heart sister.’”

Although Glass and Tompkins never considered how the other would carry on if one died, Glass said she knew she had to fill some gaps left by her friend’s absence.

On Ta’ah’s senior prom night a few months after her mother died, Glass set up the pre-party in Tompkins’ favorite color, Tiffany blue, and put sparkles everywhere she could, the way Tompkins would have wanted. Before Ta’ah left for college, Glass bought the soon-to-be-freshman a comforter, set of bed sheets, ironing board and an iron. She checks in on the young woman frequently to remind her that she is not alone.

And as she spends the next month — and years to come — sharing their story, Glass said, she wants people to take away a beautiful, not a sad, lesson from her and Tompkins’ friendship.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Not everybody is in your life forever,” Glass said. “Karen played her part in her season with me, and it was only meant to last so long. I wish it was a lot longer. But she left a footprint in my heart.”

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