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Heart of a Champion

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

Meet Jamie Napolitano, a 40-year-old mother of two and a professor at Southeastern. She’s also a marathon runner in the best shape of her life, but it took a heartbreaking tragedy to put her on this path.

“My sophomore year in college I had a heart attack, when I was 19," she said.

Jamie battled heart disease for most of her life, and as she got into her 30s, the problem became unbearable.

“I just could barely breathe,” she said. “I would try to vacuum and I'd have to sleep for the rest of the day. That was not normal for me. It turned out my symptoms were getting worse and worse, and there was nothing else to be done but have a heart transplant. "

She was put on a list and hoped for a match.

"I didn't know how long I was going to have to wait. I kept my phone by me all the time, but not being in the hospital put me lower on the list," she said.

Meanwhile, more than 500 miles away just outside of Austin, TX, another family was dealing with their own sickness.

Royal and Janice Burleson are a married couple of 35 years with two sons. Their youngest was Cameron, who on the surface had the all-American childhood. He did well in school, played football and ran track. But on the inside, Cameron battled a demon.

"He said, ‘well I'm hearing voices,’” Royal said. “I said 'what kind of voices?' He said 'voices are talking to me.' I said 'oh yeah? What are they telling you?' He said, ‘they are telling me to hurt myself.'"

Paranoid schizophrenia was the official medical diagnosis. His parents got him help and medication, and sometimes it worked and other times it didn't. Eventually, it became too much for him to bear and Cameron took his own life.

"I couldn't hear anything” Royal said. “It was like a bomb had went off. This can't be happening. No, it can't." 

But as the Burleson family sat there in tragedy, they made one selfless decision.

"From there, the doctors said there was no brain activity,” Janice said. “That's when they asked, 'would you like to donate?' And right away I said yes. I didn't take two seconds to think about it."

That decision saved another life. Back in Louisiana, after two weeks on the waiting list, Jamie learned that Cameron was a perfect match.

"They came in and said they think they have a heart for me,” Jamie said.  “It's a little overwhelming. Time stops when they tell you that."

And on Jan. 1, 2009, Cameron's heart beat again - inside Jamie's body.

The decision to donate was an easy one for the Burleson family, but coming in contact with the life it saved took some time.

"She responded saying 'thank you,'” Royal said. “It was like him coming back and saying, 'I'm here.' It took us four years after the day she got that heart…it took us four years to get in touch with her. And why? We weren't ready."

"I was at the hospital for routine tests and a checkup. They had a package for me and it was a letter from my donor's mom," Jamie said.

Multiple letters followed, and eventually it was time to meet face-to-face. At the transplant games, was everything they thought it would be.

"I’m just overwhelmed and so happy to finally meet her and to hear his heart beat,” Janice said. “That was a moment I'll never forget. I’ll treasure it always."

Her new heart has taken Jamie to new heights. The woman who was too sick and not allowed to play sports growing up is now a bona fide athlete. She competes regularly in marathons and works out on a daily basis. And in those transplant games, she won two gold medals - a silver medal and a bronze.

And every time she competes, she does it for the person who made it possible.

"You feel a great responsibility to want to take care of the heart and to live life so that they're glad that they made that decision," Jamie said.

"We look at her as family,” Janie said. “She is like blood. There is nothing we wouldn't do or as far as we can go for her."

"See, I have a chance to - every time I break down like this, Jamie will call us. She'll text Jan, and it's like he is answering."

Jamie is competing for the 2016 transplant games in Ohio next month.. Royal and Janice will be there cheering her on.

The need for organ donors is tremendous. There are 120,000 people currently on a waiting list, many for years at a time, for a live-saving organ.

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