By Daniel Kim
Few of us have experienced a disruption to our lives as severe as the current pandemic, but Amy Silverstein is a veteran when it comes to persevering through the unexpected. So far, Silverstein has had not one but three hearts, undergoing two transplants at the ages of 21 and 51. However, now with two bestselling books and an upcoming television series, Silverstein has shown that it is possible to not only survive but thrive under the most dire of circumstances.
Amy Silverstein was a seemingly healthy, first-year law student at New York University when her life took an unwelcome turn for the worst. While on a date with her boyfriend, she experienced sudden heart failure and was rushed to the emergency room where she learned that she required an immediate heart transplant to survive. After an eight-month wait, Silverstein received her new heart, and while she was grateful, she was only given “a ten-year life expectancy — at best,” and those years would not be easy.
“As my transplant cardiologist at Cedars Sinai says, ‘There’s no free lunch in heart transplant,’ meaning that patients pay (dearly) for the additional life years they’ve been given by transplantation,” Silverstein recalled. “Lifelong immunosuppressive medications turn off the essential life-giving process at work in the human body: our immune system.And this, in turn, causes multiple and iterative ills, including cancer, deadly infections, and serious conditions like diabetes and kidney disease in heart transplant recipients.” Because of this, Silverstein said that “at a young age, [I] felt like I made a deal with the devil: I would pay for the life that was restored to me by a magnificent donor heart.”
But Silverstein persisted. She went on to finish law school and married that same boyfriend from the restaurant, who stayed by her side throughout the entire process. After her son was born, she left her job in corporate law to become a full time mother. It was during this period that Silverstein wrote her first memoir Sick Girl (2007) chronicling her experiences as a young transplant recipient. The book subsequently received much media attention for its brutally honest (and sometimes controversial) perspectives, but Silverstein stands by her “bold telling.”
“I received hundreds of letters and emails (and I still do), from women and men, most of them young, who…thank me for giving them permission to take off their mask of okay-ness,” Silverstein explained. “Sick Girl’s message gives readers the courage to take off their masks and reassures them that having mixed feelings is not only natural, it’s healthy. The extreme circumstances set out in Sick Girl are not ones most people will ever have to deal with, and yet the book illuminates a predicament and bundle of feelings we all share: the pressure to rise above even the most difficult troubles cheerfully and put a smile on it. Most importantly, I think Sick Girl encourages us to question societal expectations to simplify our most intractable challenges and steep ourselves in the panacea of gratitude so we can buck up and look on the bright side. We dare to realize that these expectations only serve to invalidate our emotions and leave us feeling worse.”
In 2014, Silverstein’s heart began failing again. While her original donor heart trounced medical expectations and lasted 26 years, Silverstein would have to go to California for another chance at a transplant. But this time, she would not have to spend a single night alone: nine of her friends created a spreadsheet and took turns flying cross-country to stay by her side for months until she received her new donor heart. Her second memoir, My Glory Was I Had Such Friends (2017), recounts this journey of friendship that “saved her life as much as the transplant did.” Her heartwarming story caught the eye of Hollywood icon J.J. Abrams, who acquired the rights to the book under his Bad Robot productions. After a competitive situation, the series was recently given a straight-to-series order by Apple TV+ with Jennifer Garner starring and Silverstein executive producing.
“It was exciting from the very start because everyone involved has been so enthusiastic about the themes in the book: the importance of showing up for our friends,” Silverstein recalled. While “production hasn’t started due to Covid,” Silverstein said, “we’re really close . . . as an executive producer, I have been involved in every aspect of production so far: pitching the TV show to the various networks, helping choose the writer as well as the actress who will play the leading role, and reviewing scripts.”
So what does the future hold for Silverstein? Right now, her health is excellent, and she continues to live “the heck out of each day, as always.” She is currently working on a third book, this time fiction, fulfilling her childhood dream of being a fiction writer. But given all of what she has accomplished, Silverstein still remembers the moment she received her “little gold key.”
“I remember how honored I felt when I learned that I had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa,” Silverstein said. It’s one thing to excel academically, but to be recognized by faculty as a student worthy of Phi Beta Kappa felt like a different kind of achievement. There was something sparkly about it . . . this felt like a sign of sorts that seemed to be timed perfectly in my life: Just as I was about to set off in my post-college life, I received this affirmation that let me know that I shined in a special way. It wasn’t just my grades. There was something else about me as a student, a mind, a voice, and a young woman. And it got noticed by people I respect. My little gold key set me on my way. To this day, I still have it. And I’m proud of it.”
Daniel Kim is a senior at Duke University with a major in theater studies and a minor in biology. A junior-year ΦBK inductee, Daniel is interested in the entertainment industry and Asian American history. Duke University is home to the Beta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.