A hospital intensive care unit isn't exactly where many young people imagine they'll find love. But Linda Thibodeaux, 22, and Jordan Merecka, 18, both share something that few young people can relate to – new hearts.
The Houston-area residents met and fell in love last year while both were in the hospital. Thibodeaux was recovering from her second heart transplant, and Merecka had just received an artificial heart.
"We had heard about each other, but never met because neither of us could really get out of bed," Merecka said. "But our nurses all said we should meet."
Both had been in and out of the hospital for several months when Merecka was finally able to visit Thibodeaux's room, dragging the 400-pound console he needed to run his artificial heart.
"We just said hello. I was really timid, and so was she," Merecka said.
"I think we mutually agree that it was an awkward first meeting," Thibodeaux said.
But their friendship bloomed into a romance as Merecka was waiting for a heart, being kept alive by the artificial one he had to connect to a backpack full of batteries. Thibodeaux would visit him after her regular appointments at the hospital's cardiac cath lab, where doctors checked to see how her body was responding to her new heart.
Finally on October 29, Merecka learned that he was all set to get a new heart.
"I was so happy for him. I just remembered how happy I was to receive mine," Thibodeaux said. "I knew this was going to be the perfect one that God had waited to find for him."
As Merecka was recovering from his surgery, Thibodeaux was there to encourage him.
"She was someone who could understand me and knew what I was going through," Merecka said. "Neither of us had ever met someone our age in the same boat as us."
Heart transplants for young patients are fairly unusual. In 2011, about 2,300 people got new hearts in the U.S., according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, but only about 200 of them were between ages 18 and 34. Because donor hearts are in short supply, a person must be sick enough to need a new heart, but healthy enough to withstand the transplant, making the pool of potential recipients even smaller.
Merecka said those odds alone make his relationship with Thibodeaux unique.
"We share something so special that I'll never be able to find with another person," he said.
Today, both Thibodeaux and Merecka are doing well. They're both in school and spend time volunteering for LifeGift, a Texas non-profit group that works to connect patients waiting for organ donations with potential donors.
"I think it's a really important thing for people to do. If it wasn't for someone donating their heart, Jordan and I wouldn't be here," Thibodeaux said.
But they also spend most of their weekends together, cooking, going to the movies and celebrating each milestone of their transplants and recoveries. Merecka just celebrated the six-month anniversary of his transplant, and Thibodeaux is approaching the one-year mark.
Celebrating their new hearts with each other makes it that much sweeter.
"God brings certain people into your life for a reason, and I'm so lucky and thankful he brought Jordan to mine," Thibodeaux said.