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Matters of the heart: Family with same condition goes through three transplants

The Monroe family has been through a lot. Three of them share the same condition, forcing three heart transplants. But their outlook on life is unwavering.

CLEVELAND — In the blink of an eye, Candice Monroe's life as a 15-year-old changed forever. 

She was diagnosed with Cardiomyopathy, a leading cause of heart failure.

"All of the sudden, I was getting shortness of breath, coughing. It really started as flu-like symptoms, but the flu usually lasts a week, tops, and it just continued," Candice said. "I was told that if I didn’t get a heart transplant, that I would not see my 16th birthday."

She was too sick to leave the hospital, so for weeks, Candice just waited for that lifesaving call.

"I just remember being scared. But, I thought deep inside, I know I’m gonna get that second chance," she remembered.

Then, she did.

"I remember getting a call in the middle of the night. And, at the time, it was the transplant doctor, sharing with me that a heart was found," Candice said.

The gift was from another 15-year-old girl named Alicia. A gift so great, the gratitude is almost too hard for Candice to describe.

"How can you truly say thank you to someone who’s given you a second chance?" she wondered.

You might be asking yourself, "How does a teenage girl go from healthy, to heart transplant?" To understand it, we have to start from the beginning of the Monroe Family's journey. The year was 1993. Candice was seven. Her sister, Patrice, was 13.

"Being seven years old and hearing that my sister was going to need a new heart, that was a lot, to take in," Candice said.

It's hard to believe, right? Two sisters receiving new hearts before their sweet 16.

The notion of both his daughters being diagnosed with heart failure, was unfathomable to their father, Kevin Monroe.

"That was just unbelievable for us. To have gone through it once, was a serious event. To have to endure it twice, was just incredulous," Mr. Monroe said.

Patrice made it 17 years without a problem. Then, in 2010, she found out she had coronary artery disease and needed another new heart. She underwent a second transplant -- before another setback a few years later.

Doctors did everything they could.

"They tried and it failed. And she passed away on my birthday. And that was unbearable," Mr. Monroe said, holding back tears.

Now, at age 67, he finds himself in the very same spot as his daughters were years ago. He has cardiomyopathy and needs a new heart. 

In a statement about the Monroe Family's shared heart condition, the Cleveland Clinic said:

"Cardiomyopathy is a major cause of heart failure and one of the common heart conditions that leads to patients needing a heart transplant. Some forms of cardiomyopathy, such as the type the Monroe family has, can have a genetic component. This could lead to multiple family members having the condition and needing advanced treatment or transplant.  Unfortunately, inherited heart disease cannot be prevented; however, screenings and genetic testing can lead to early identification of the disease.  Medications, lifestyle modification and devices can be used for treatment. However,  for those with severe disease, heart transplants may be needed and can be life-saving. Patients are carefully screened and placed on a waiting list until a donor heart becomes available.  April is Donate Life Month, and we encourage everyone to consider becoming an organ donor. Your decision could give a patient on the waiting list a second chance at life. "

Mr. Monroe says he is not living his life on a ticking clock.

"I've seen the Promise Land with my other two other daughters. I will spend as much time with my family as I can. I'm willing to undergo whatever it takes to keep me with them," Mr. Monroe said.

He also has a goal: To watch Patrice's 12-year-old daughter, Leahna, graduate high school.

We asked about the Monroe Family's internal strength, and how they manage their unlikely challenges.

"It’s the old paradigm of whether or not the glass is half empty or half full. I think we as a family have grown to see it as half full. And we keep focused on that half full mentality," Mr. Monroe expressed.

For 32-year-old Candice, it's about honoring her sister ... which means caring for herself.

"It's something that's constantly on my mind. But I made a vow after she passed away, that I would take good care of my heart," she said.

Candice's heart is bonded to her donor, Alicia's, father, Chuck, forever. The two connected years ago in Hawaii, where he lives.

"Chuck and I are very close. He’s become best friends with my parents," Candice said.

And she'll never forget the first time they lied eyes on each other. It had been 13 years since the transplant.

"We both walk in the room and ... words can't explain that moment. I remember him walking in and hugging me and saying, 'You're lovely,'" Candice remembered.

Then Chuck got the chance to hear his late daughter's heart beat, inside of Candice.

"It was a moment that we will both cherish forever," Candice said. "I will never be his daughter, but knowing that he was finding that type of closure, that meant everything to me."

Now, Candice's mission is spreading awareness for organ donation. She works closely with LifeBanc, and strives to encourage people to become donors.

"You have the possibility of saving or enhancing so many lives through organ and tissue donation. The organization is something that I will continue to work with, volunteer with. Anything I can do, I will do, for LifeBanc," she said. "If I can have one person become an organ donor, or I can take better care of myself for my family, my friends, then, I’ve done something right."

For more information on organ donation, click HERE.