VALENTINE GIFT BEATS 'EM ALL : HEART TRANSPLANT 3 YEARS AGO A WOMAN'S FEB. 14 MIRACLE.
Edna Nicotra Sigmon is 63. But the petite woman with chestnut hair and rosy cheeks is always mistaken for younger.
``Maybe it's my 19-year-old heart,'' she likes to say with a laugh, her hand instinctively moving to her chest.
The dark scar on her pale skin is one of the few visible signs of the gift she received from a secret Valentine three years ago.
She still doesn't know his name, how he lived, what his hopes and dreams were. But part of him lives inside her. And she is forever grateful.
It was just before the holidays in 1991 when Sigmon caught the flu. The then-58-year-old who worked out at the gym at least three times a week had no reason to believe the bug wouldn't pass, just like any other ailment. But this virus seized upon her heart.
It started as a deep, raspy cough that would rattle her insides. A visit to the doctor turned up an enlarged heart. What was supposed to be a fist-sized organ eventually would swell to nearly fill her rib cage.
In the next two years, the enlarged heart led to two minor heart attacks and a stroke that erased her short-term memory and temporarily robbed her of the ability to play piano, a talent she had honed since childhood.
By then there was no saving the heart.
``When you blow a balloon, when you let the air out, it doesn't go back to its original shape,'' Sigmon's doctors explained.
Her doctor prescribed a heart transplant; without one, he told her, she would have about two years to live. But that drastic a step was incomprehensible to Sigmon, who rarely got sick and still felt healthy.
``I had good days and bad days,'' she said. ``They said, `You're walking a fine line. One of these days, it's going to go bad.' ''
Feb. 2, 1994, was the day she crossed the fine line. That day, she tried to walk the 20 feet from her driveway to her front door and had to sit down three times to catch her breath.
Sigmon called her doctor. The next day, she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, at the top of the waiting list for a new heart.
Somewhere nearby, a 19-year-old man lay dying.
Because of confidentiality, doctors revealed little information about him. But based on passing comments from different medical staff members, Sigmon has pieced together what she believes were the final days of her donor's life.
He was probably with some friends in a car on the Ventura Freeway near Tarzana when the accident happened, she said.
For a long time, she suspects, his parents clung to hopes he would recover from likely massive injuries. He was brain dead, Sigmon said.
``On the 13th or early on the 14th,'' Sigmon guessed, ``his parents decided to take him off life support.''
Sigmon awoke on the morning of Valentine's Day, eager to have breakfast. She was in bed, combing her hair when a nurse came into her hospital room and whispered: ``We have a heart for you.''
``Yes,'' the nurse said reassuringly. ``You have a real Valentine.''
Breakfast was put on the back burner.
They shipped her into surgery in short order. Her husband, Jay, rushed to the hospital to pace the waiting room.
In those moments of fear and hope, he penned a poem to his wife on a piece of scrap paper:
``Love is eternal, when sincere and true. Today, God has given a share of his love for you (Smiley face.) Precious, oh what a wonderful sign. Today the Lord has chosen you for his Valentine. - Jay.''
That note, protected with clear tape, still hangs from Sigmon's kitchen bulletin board, next to a photo of Jay.
That distinguished-looking fellow with the full head of white hair had won then-Edna Nicotra's heart with his gentle manner a little more than 10 years earlier. In those months after the surgery, Jay held her hand through her post-surgery, medication-induced hallucinations, helped her get back on her feet at home, and put together two portable kits for the 23 anti-rejection medications and assorted vitamins she has to take daily.
Five months later, while still recuperating from the surgery at home, Edna got up one morning to find Jay lying on their kitchen floor.
He had died of a heart attack.
``I thought, `This isn't fair. I went through a heart transplant to lose my husband,' '' Sigmon said.
``But now I know I can help other people,'' she said. ``If I can go through this, especially losing my mate, you can do it.''
Her gaze fell on the framed photos of two of her nine grandchildren propped on the upright piano in her living room.
``When this started, they gave me two years to live,'' she said.
If she had ignored her doctor's advice to accept a heart transplant, if the parents of her mystery donor had not agreed to share a part of their son with a stranger, Sigmon would not have lived to know two of her youngest grandchildren, 10 months and 18 months old.
Two months after her transplant surgery, around Easter time in 1994, Sigmon sent a note to the young donor's mother via the transplant team.
``I want to thank you for making such a sacrifice,'' Sigmon wrote.
``I have three grown sons of my own and I don't know that I could've made that decision. Because of your generosity, now I'll get to see my grandchildren grow up,'' she continued. ``I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart - or, I should say, your son's heart. Because part of your son still lives.''
``I never received an answer from her, but that was all right,'' she said. ``I just wanted her to know how thankful I was, how it gave me a second chance.''
Her hand moved again over her heart.
``I treasure this precious, priceless gift,'' she said.
``I take good care of this boy,'' she said, laughing. ``He doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink.''
His parents would be proud.
For more information about organ and tissue donation, here are some organizations that can help answer your questions:
Regional Organ Procurement Agency, (800) 933-0440.
Coalition on Donation, (800) 355-7427.
United Network for Organ Sharing, (800) 243-6667.
Southern California Organ Procurement Center, (213) 413-6219.
Photo: (1--color--COVER) Secret Valentine
Edna Nicotra Sigmon, 63, never knew the 19-year-old whose heart beats inside her, but she is eternally grateful.
(2) Thanks to the heart she received on Valentine's Day three years ago from an anonymous 19-year-old automobile accident victim, Reseda resident Edna Nicotra Sigmon has a second chance at life.
Evan Yee/Daily News