PALO ALTO, CA -- A.J. Reyes, 33, received more than heart transplant when his organ was failing about a decade ago.
The San Jose man developed a special bond with the mother of the Willows man who donated his heart following a motorcycle crash, so he's got a second family.
He also got confirmation about what job he should be doing.
The Stanford registered nurse who works in the Ears, Nose and Throat department had no heart issues when he was younger, with asthma being the extent of his medical history.
But 13 years ago, the student at Cal State, Sacramento, who wanted to be a nurse since he was 20 years old, realized he was tired and listless a lot of the time.
"I was always sick, so I had to switch my major to health sciences. I had to give up on my dream," Reyes told Patch. "I thought it was a bad flu."
At one point, a doctor misdiagnosed his condition and sent him home with an inhaler. His condition was up and down until he was awakened when he couldn't breathe.
"I called and woke up my mom," he said.
As it turns out, his prognosis was more serious.
"I heard heart failure. It was like a death sentence," he said.
In 2010, his heart failed completely in "cardiac shock." He was placed on a mechanical heart, waking from an induced coma a month and a half later at Stanford Medical Center, where he said he received impeccable care.
"That was my bridge to a transplant," he said.
He waited almost a week to hear back that heart donor Justin Olivera had one to give from Willows.
"It was the longest six days of my life," Reyes said.
But beyond his family, Reyes knew he wasn't alone. Less than 200 miles away, Olivera's mother, Mary Knauer, had received news that upon her son dying he had elected to donate his organs. He had no chance of living. But Reyes did.
"It is pretty incredible," she told Patch.
Every time she sees Reyes, she touches his chest -- a gesture that brings her closer to her late son.
"He has my son's heart. As long as he has something from my son, he's a part of me," Knauer said. "It's brought us all together."
The two families have become one big, extended unit.
Knauer had the honor of attending one of the most important milestones in the life of a man who was given a second chance. Reyes was so moved by his treatment at Stanford Medical Center, he went back to school to take an accelerated course at Samuel Merritt University and become a registered nurse like he had planned for years.
Knauer attended his graduation in 2017. It was like her son had reached a milestone.
"Every time we see each other she gives me a pat on my chest. We have connected. I want to do well to make her proud of me, just as I would want to make my (own) mom proud," he said. "It was like me and Justin did it together."
The poignant story circles back to Stanford where Reyes was offered a job.
"To work at Stanford, I would go for that in a heartbeat," he said.
Now he thrives and thinks about possibly working on the transplant ward.
The most recent California Health Interview Survey from 2016 estimates that of Santa Clara County residents who are 18 years and older, 4.6 percent stated they had been diagnosed with heart disease.
This month, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department has invited residents to participate in a survey in which the data aims to assess the health status of its citizens and provide insight into risk behaviors, chronic conditions and use of preventive services. The invitation will be hitting mailboxes in mid February. Everyone is encouraged to participate. For more information, visit https://www.sccgov.org/sites/phd/hi/hd/Pages/brfs.aspx
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, the American Heart Association reports.