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Two mothers, one heart: A shared journey for heart transplant recipients

Friendship forms between two strangers who received lifesaving transplants within days of each other.

Two women sitting, smiling, and holding hands on steps Janell Hull (left) and Mary Small (right), who started as strangers, became fast friends through their shared experience of a life-changing surgery. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

By Sean Gorman
Mary Small and Janell Hull didn’t know one other before they were each brought to the hospital late last year for a heart transplant.
But they already had so much in common by the time they arrived at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center’s intensive care unit. Both had endured years-long battles with declining heart health while taking their own paths to the same destination of a lifesaving transplant from the team at Hume-Lee Transplant Center.
And beyond their health challenges, they both knew what it was like to experience everything while being moms of young children.
Following the birth of her daughter more than two years ago, Hull was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a heart disease derived from pregnancy that makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. By November 2022, she needed a new heart.
She was rushed to VCU Medical Center that month when her heart started racing unexpectedly and her defibrillator didn’t shock her back into its regular rhythm. Doctors eventually slowed her heart down. Following a battery of tests, it was clear she needed a transplant.
“My heart had already gotten so weak during my initial diagnosis back in April 2020,” said Hull, of Virginia Beach. “A heart transplant was kind of always up in the air. It’s been a long journey.”
It’s the kind of journey Small knows much about. She had already been admitted to the hospital weeks before Hull arrived.
Small had also developed peripartum cardiomyopathy and had long suspected a transplant was on the horizon. In October 2022, she came to the hospital because she hadn’t been feeling well. Tests revealed unsettling news.
“They said, ‘Your heart failure has gotten to the point where your organ needs help.’ They tried another medication, and it didn't work,” Small, of Fredericksburg, said. “And that's when they told me I wasn’t leaving the hospital until I got a new heart.”

Two women in a hospital room. One woman is sitting on a bed and the other is standing next to her.

Janell Hull (right) supporting new friend, Mary Small (left), through her recovery after heart transplant surgery.


A shared experience, doors away

As VCU Health social worker Megan Maltby met with both women, she was struck at how they each talked about their own circumstances in such similar terms, even though they were strangers.
“They were both saying the same thing to me about their journey, about their concerns, without knowing the other was saying the same thing,” Maltby said. “Their minds were on their children, and just wanting to know, ‘Am I ever going to have another holiday with my kids?’ I just knew there was going to be a connection.”
Maltby and Melissa Smallfield, M.D., told each mom about the other, and how both needed a new heart. Given patient confidentiality rules, there were limits on what each woman could be told about the other. Nonetheless, knowing there was another mom nearby was a comfort to them. Small has four children, the oldest age 10. Hull has two children, much younger.
“Every time the nurses would come into the room, I would ask ‘How’s the other mom? Is she doing OK? Has she gotten her heart yet?” Small said. “Every day, I asked about Janell, and every day I prayed for her. And I told them to let her know that. The nurses and doctors said, ‘I hope you all get to meet one day.’ I told them I’d love to.”
Down the hall in her own room, Hull was also checking on Small, despite not knowing her name.
“I felt a kinship with her and how she might be feeling because I knew she was away from her kids. Every mom who loves their kids knows how difficult that is,” Hull said. “I was always thinking about her.”
Josue “Josh” Chery, M.D., who treated the women, says just hearing about another patient in similar circumstances can offer hope to patients facing daunting health challenges.
“It allows you to realize that you're not alone in the fight,” he said.
Chery worked with both women to secure the organ each needed for their transplant. Within hours in late November, he was informed about a heart offer for Small and another for Hull.
On Nov. 29, Mohammed A. Quader, M.D., performed Hull’s transplant. The next day, Chery performed the heart transplant on Small.
As she was recovering from her procedure, Small asked about how Hull was doing after her transplant. She gave a handwritten note to a doctor to deliver to Hull.
“She wrote, ‘I'm practicing my writing for my occupational therapy, and I just wanted to reach out to say Hi. I can't wait for you to be home with your babies,’” Hull said, paraphrasing the note. “It was really sweet.”

Three women standing together smiling. They are outside of a building at VCU Health.

Mary Small, Megan Maltby, a clinical social worker with the heart failure and transplant program at VCU Health Pauley Heart Center, and Janell Hull. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)


Strangers become fast friends

The two women finally met when Hull visited Small’s room.
Small recalls there were “probably a lot of tears” in the first meeting when she got to speak with Hull, someone who truly understood their shared experience of going through a heart transplant.
“It was like everything that Janell and I talked about, she understood 100 percent what I was saying,” Small explained.
For Hull, that first meeting was like being reunited with a longtime friend.
“It was like finally, we got to be in a room together,” Hull says. “We were both pretty emotional because we had heard so much about one other throughout this whole journey. It didn't feel like meeting a stranger.”
Without missing a beat, both moms continue checking in with one another as they recover from their life-changing surgeries.
“We keep in touch almost every day,” Small said.
Hull says they’re in constant contact with one another and remarked, "We're pretty much on the same timeline of recovering and adjusting to being home again."


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