Claire Sylvia, who was the first person in New England to undergo a heart-lung transplant, has died at age 69, 21 years after the operation. Her story received worldwide attention after she claimed that she inherited characteristics of the young man whose organs she received, including a taste for beer.
A Maine teenager’s death in a 1988 motorcycle crash ended up giving life to Claire Sylvia.
Later, Sylvia said she developed unexplained cravings, such as a taste for beer, that she found out were traits of her donor.
Sylvia, who lived in Hull, Mass., and was the first person in New England to receive a heart-lung transplant, died Wednesday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She was 69.
“She was amazing,” her daughter Amara Cohen said. “She was generous and caring. She was a great mother and grandmother. She went through a lot and she survived.”
A one-time professional dancer, Sylvia received the organs of Tim Lamirande, 18, of Saco, Maine, during a transplant operation at Yale-New Haven Hospital 21 years ago.
Sylvia was 47 when she learned she was dying from primary pulmonary hypertension.
“For a year or more she could only talk in a whisper and slowly,” longtime friend Mary Kennedy of Cohasset said.
Kennedy first met Sylvia in the late 1970s when she was giving dance lessons at her Hull home.
Following the heart-lung transplant, Sylvia was back on her feet and vibrant as ever.
“Claire was a great believer in the supernatural and the spiritual, but she also had her two feet firmly on the ground,” Kennedy said. “She had a quirky sense of humor. No matter how angry she got, she could always laugh herself out of it. She never held grudges.”
Sylvia, who lived in Hull for 30 years before moving to Florida, became a best-selling author in 1997 with “A Change of Heart: A Memoir.” The book was published in 12 languages and made into a film, “Heart of a Stranger,” starring Jane Seymour.
Sylvia later later promoted the need for more organ donors and appeared on the Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey television shows to talk about her experiences.
In 1998, Sylvia had additional health problems that led to her receiving a kidney from a former dance partner, who proved a match despite the two being unrelated.
Over the years, Sylvia kept in touch with Lamirande’s family.
“She was a wonderful person,” Joan Lamirande said, fighting back tears in a telephone interview from her home in Saco. “As long as she was living it was as if my son was still alive. Now that she is gone, I know that my son is gone.”
Cohen said her mother had been living in a Brookline apartment while preparing to move to Linden Ponds, a Hingham retirement community.
The exact cause of death hasn’t been determined although she did have a blood clot on her lung, Cohen, 37, of Brookline, said.
Sylvia was coughing and feeling weak when she was admitted to the hospital a week ago. She was due to be released and go to a rehabilitation facility when she died.
Sylvia is also survived by two grandsons, Zachary Cohen, 7, and Andrew Cohen, 4; a sister, Marilyn Kurtz of Long Island, N.Y.; and her son-in-law, Dan Cohen.
Dennis Tatz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.