Heart transplant patient becomes Stanford nurse, meets annually with mother of donor

There is a new nurse at Stanford Hospital who offers a unique perspective.

A.J. Reyes was a patient there eight years ago for a heart transplant. The 33-year-old started work as a nurse at Stanford on January 14.

He says this is his dream job at his dream hospital. Reyes performs each task with a sense of purpose. 
"It's a humbling experience being on the other side of the bed carrying for patients," Reyes said.

In 2010, Reyes suffered a viral infection that led to congestive heart failure. 

"I was tired all the time, lots of swelling in my legs and my body. I couldn't make it from one side of the campus to the other when I was going to school," he said.

He says his second chance at life was given to him by 40-year-old Justin Olivera of Willows, a small town west of Chico. He had been killed in motorcycle accident. 

"If I didn't get the transplant, I had only days to live," Reyes said. 

From Willows, Olivera's mother, Mary Ellen Knauer, spoke to KTVU about her friendship with Reyes. 

"I touch his chest and feel it and know that it's in there," said Knauer. 

Reyes and his donor's mother meet at least once a year at the cemetary where Olivera is buried. She describes the first meeting months after Reyes's surgergy. 
"We listened together to A.J. (Reyes's) heart. My son's heart beating in A.J.'s chest, I should say and that was just awesome," said Knauer. 
Also awesome, Reyes says were the Stanford nurses who cared for him. 
and inspired him to become a nurse. 

"I had such great nurses, I wanted to come back and give back to the profession that saved my life," said Reyes. 
On Nov. 20, 2018, the 8th anniversary of his transplant surgery, Stanford Hospital officials interviewed Reyes for a nursing position. 

Patient care manager Pauline Regner supervises the team of nurses who took care of Reyes. 

She says it's rare to know what happens to a patient after they're discharged. 

"It gives me goosebumps. It really does," said Regner." It warms our hearts to be able to see him in the hallway, in the cafeteria, to have him as a colleague." 
"I want to do great things with this heart...with this second chance...with this gift," said Reyes. 

His dream is to return to the unit where he received post-surgery care so he can help other transplant patients recover. 

Reyes says worked at another hospital for one year before he got the job at Stanford, where his heart belongs.