ST. LOUIS — The strongest people aren't always the ones with the biggest muscles.
Jim Tietjens does work out every day.
"I always felt a need to really train my body," he said.
But his power is his perseverance.
Tietjens, a St. Louis Soccer Hall of Famer, was a pugnacious goalkeeper out of Oakville High School, who played for the US Under-19 national team.
"I think back in those years, I probably played in about 40, maybe 50 international games," Tietjens said, recalling.
But at 32 years old, after a stellar career at St. Louis University and then the pros, he had to trade in his soccer shorts for a hospital gown.
"The diagnosis," he said, "was Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy."
Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. Both his dad and sister died from the condition in their 30s.
To save his life, Tietjens needed a heart transplant.
"Nationally, we lose about three in five people waiting for a transplant," said Cindy Pasque, BJC's heart transplant coordinator. "There's just not enough organs to go around and there's not enough organs available to people when they get critically ill."
Tietjens was one of the lucky ones, but it was only the first step on a lengthy staircase to survive.
"Growing up, I got very used to the fact that my dad was kind of always sick but able to live his life at the same time," said Jim's daughter, Annie Tietjens.
Over the past three decades, Tietjens has undergone a kidney transplant, beaten Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, as well as tongue and throat cancer. It seemed his daughter Annie was spending as much time visiting hospitals as playgrounds.
"I got so interested and I wanted to go and I wanted to learn and understand like everything that was happening to him," Annie said.
In 2018, after her dad got his second heart transplant, Annie found her work of heart.
Inspired by her dad's caregivers, she recently graduated, and is now working as a nurse in BJC's Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
"She truly is excited about her job," said Pasque. "She's a great individual. She's a great nurse already."
"I heard her make a comment the other day," said Jim, "That she can't believe that the people she works with now were the same people that had their hands inside my body. "
April is National Donate Life Month. Donate Life Month is dedicated to raising awareness about organ donation, and encourages Americans to register to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, according to the Donate Life America website.
Organ donation changed the end to the Tietjens family's story.
"I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for my dad's first donor," Annie said. " And now I have a life and one day I'll get married, hopefully, and have kids. And that creates more lives. So you're not just saving one."
Jim Tietjens said he thinks about and is grateful every day to his donors and their families, who helped all of us to see there truly is life after death.
For more information on organ donation, click here to visit Donate Life America's website.
To register to be an organ, eye or tissue donor in your state, click here.
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