Heather James
Heather James. Her path to a VCU degree included hospital stays and multiple organ transplants. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2021: After overcoming steep health challenges, Heather James now inspires others

Her eight-year journey to a VCU degree was full of obstacles — including multiple organ transplants. Now, the public relations student aspires to a career in the field of organ donation advocacy.

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Heather James left Virginia Commonwealth University barely a month after first arriving on campus as a freshman in August 2013. James, who was born with cystic fibrosis, was experiencing a rapid decline in her lung strength, and she had no choice but to withdraw to focus on her health. She had spent years dreaming about being a college student. To have that so quickly ripped away was devastating.

Subsequent years brought hospital stays, multiple organ transplants, and even occasional bouts of doubt for the resilient, steadfastly optimistic James. However, her health steadily improved with each new procedure, and she resumed her education by taking classes online at John Tyler Community College, sometimes working from a hospital room or hooked up to a dialysis machine. Through it all, she was determined to return to VCU and finish what she’d started.

This month, James graduates from VCU, marking the triumphant conclusion of an eight-year journey she fought through an array of formidable obstacles to complete.

“It's been a long time,” James said. “The fact that graduation is so close now, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's really pretty amazing. I was never sure I would make it to see this.”

For James, the path back began with a double lung and liver transplant in November 2014. James recuperated for a year and a half before enrolling at John Tyler, taking classes online because of the frequent need to be on dialysis. In those days, she began to feel stronger but admits to a creeping uncertainty about ever returning to a campus or ultimately making it back to VCU.

Then, in December 2017, she received a kidney from her mother, and “I was really able to thrive. I was able to put all my energy into my education after that.” Returning to in-person classes became a reality, and she transferred to VCU in the fall of 2019. She said receiving her acceptance letter from VCU the second time was a moment she will always treasure.

For James, the opportunity to attend VCU represented a chance to immerse herself in the kind of academic environment that she had long wanted to experience.

“I've always enjoyed learning,” James said. “I get excited learning new things and growing as an individual. I have always taken it seriously. I love the thrill of getting a grade back — it’s something that always has excited me for some reason, ever since I was in elementary school.”

Through her various challenges, James said she reminded herself to remember how fortunate she was to have a strong support system of family and friends — “they’ve stood by me through everything,” she said — and urged herself to stay hopeful.

“Even though things didn't always happen in the time that I wanted them to, I learned to give things time and allow things to just kind of be and to not put so much pressure on myself for things to be perfect all the time,” James said. “No matter what, you have to have hope that things will eventually work out in the end.”

James said she has completed a lot of schoolwork during hospital stays, bringing her laptop with her to keep on top of things while limiting her work to manageable chunks. She learned to study when she can, but not overdo it. By nature a planner, she’s become even more adeptly organized by necessity. It’s helped, she said, that her professors at VCU have been “really wonderful,” always understanding if James had to miss class for unexpected medical appointments. In particular, she took two classes each with Kaitlin Hanger, Ph.D., and Judi Crenshaw in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and she said both were intent on making sure she understood to put her health first.

“I really appreciated that a lot,” James said.

“The fact that graduation is so close now, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's really pretty amazing. I was never sure I would make it to see this.”

Heather James

James has learned along the way that she has the power to inspire others. She had done some public speaking in high school for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, raising awareness of the condition. Then, in 2016, she was enlisted to be the keynote speaker at the United Network for Organ Sharing’s annual soiree. Sharing her story with a crowd of about 450 people, she felt something click.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “I just loved the thrill of it. I enjoyed being able to inspire people about the importance of organ donation, because it's something that a lot of people don't realize the importance of. I really wanted to continue that work.”

James became a UNOS ambassador and has spoken about her experience and the importance of organ donation to audiences at a variety of community events. She has found that she loves connecting with an audience and both moving them and educating them.

After events, attendees sometimes tell James that her story has motivated them to become organ donors — the ultimate reward for her.

“Without my organ donor, there’s no way I would be here today,” James said. “So, it's really special to me when I'm able to help people realize how important it is.”

Her experience with public speaking encouraged James to major in public relations at VCU. She worked as a communications intern at UNOS this past summer and hopes to bring her experience and education to a career in the field of organ donation advocacy.

“I always knew the importance of organ donation, but through my own experience I’ve become very passionate about it,” she said. “I know what it has meant for me. I’d like to continue that work and make a career out of it. That’s my goal, and I’m really excited for the next chapter.”

Looking back on her first abbreviated stint at VCU, James said she feels an immense gratitude to be leaving on her own terms this time.

“I'm so thankful,” James said. “It's very special that I actually have gotten to this milestone, this achievement in my life that I wasn't expecting to have. I have a lot of pride about it.”