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Staying Healthy: Justin's heart of gold

Pleasanton teen gains strength from heart transplant, sharing his story with others

Nearly a year after receiving a heart transplant, Justin Wang is getting ready to release a health cookbook that is being published by the Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area. The book is set to be released April 30 at the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto. (Photo courtesy of Wang family)

When Justin Wang was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder at just 2 years old, it was the start of a health journey that would be long and full of challenges.

After undergoing a successful heart transplant at 15, the Foothill High School student has remained positive and has undertaken the process of carefully documenting his experiences in a journal he has published online.

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it," Wang wrote in his journal, quoting the famous Helen Keller.

Now 16, Wang said he began writing not only as a way to cope with the challenges he was facing, but also as a way to inspire others going through difficulties of their own.

"I am not the greatest sufferer in the world. In fact, my life is amazing. I'm sharing my journal entries with the world because I'm hoping this will inspire people to become organ donors, and give hope to those staying in the hospital," he wrote.

Wang has been diagnosed with hypereosinophilic syndrome (more commonly known as Loeffler's syndrome), a rare disorder that results in a high count of eosinophils -- white blood cells -- in a person's body. White blood cells are usually tasked with attacking foreign substances such as infectious diseases, but in Wang's case the inflated number of cells attacked his heart.

Wang said that by the time doctors finished treating him, the damage had already been done and the right side of his heart was beyond repair.

In late 2017 his heart had begun to dramatically worsen, but it wasn't until April 2018 that he was placed on a list to receive a new heart.

On April 27, 2018 at the age of 15, Wang underwent a successful transplant surgery and began his road to recovery, publishing his journal as a way to cope with his difficulties and inspire others.

"Right after the transplant, I couldn't even get out of bed; I was very, very, very sore. It's like every single movement I have ever done my entire life just disappeared and I started out as new," Wang said during an interview last week at his family's Pleasanton home. "Everything right now is just to keep (my heart) healthy, everything."

While the surgery was considered a success -- his biopsy in January showed 0% rejection -- his condition is serious enough that he has qualified for a wish from Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area. A wish he used to help others going through a similar experience.

"He's a remarkable young man. I think what is also very important to him is to share his story and give other people hope," Elizabeth "Beth" Nolan, program director for Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area, told the Weekly. "I think this wish is very selfless and he is very much influenced by incredible role models in his family."

Knowing that a huge part of his recovery was eating right and staying healthy, Wang came up with the idea to combine his joy of writing and cooking and use his wish to create a healthy cookbook -- with the goal that this book would not only help others stay healthy, but also help guide his own dietary habits.

This was how "Justin's Hearty Recipes" was born.

Since August, Wang has been working with East Bay Healthy Chef owner Victoria Lacuesta to refine the recipes that will be added in the book. According to Lacuesta, the duo have designed a Thai basil fried rice dish and a traditional Filipino stir-fried rice noodle dish called pancit.

"Working with Justin is great! He is passionate about taking care of himself and the wonderful gift he has been blessed with," Lacuesta told the Weekly. "There is no doubt Justin will always give back to the community without expecting anything in return. The gift of life is enough. All that we have must be cherished and never take anything for granted. Always be thankful. Life is good!"

"Justin's Hearty Recipes," is still in the design phase but is slated to be released at a special cooking demonstration and book signing event at the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto on April 30 -- three days after the one-year anniversary of receiving his new heart.

Wang's journey is far from over; he says that he will need to be committed to staying healthy for the rest of his life in order to extend the life of his heart.

"What a lot of people don't know is a heart doesn't last forever after transplant. The average time a heart lasts is 15 years, which means if that works out by the time I am 30, I have to get another one," Wang said. "So everything right now at this point is trying to keep trying to extend the expiration date of my heart."

April is National Donate a Life Month and signing up to become an organ, eye and tissue donor has never been more easy. All someone needs to do is register at their local DMV or online at www.donatelife.net.

"Being an organ donor can really save lives," Wang encouraged.

Readers interested in supporting their local Make-A-Wish Foundation can visit Sf.wish.org. And to learn more about Wang and his journey, his full journal documenting his experiences can be found online at https://myhearttransplantjournal.com.

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