All College Hour speaker discusses former health problems, lessons learned

Alumna Aisha K. O’Mally ‘01 discussed her experience as a student at Geneseo during the All-College Hour lecture series on Wednesday Oct. 2. During her junior year, she encountered severe health problems that have since taught her to both appreciate and find meaning in life (Xavier Delcid/photo editor).

Life is rarely smooth sailing for anyone, but for Aisha K. O’Mally ‘01 life has resembled some of the roughest waves in the ocean. Delivering the first lecture of the year in the All-College Hour series, O’Mally spoke about a lingering health condition in her early 20s that eventually landed her on the national organ transplant list, waiting for a heart and how it taught her that no matter what comes at her, life is meaningful and we’re all here for a purpose.

In the late 1990s, O’Mally applied to Geneseo based on her parents’ suggestion, who applauded the school for quality education and cheap price. While on campus, she was a member of the AOP program, a leader in the Black Student Union and a resident assistant in Monroe Hall. 

It was during O’Mally’s junior year, however, that she first noticed a decline in her health. She experienced trouble making the walk from Southside to the academic buildings, concentrating on homework and staying motivated through classes. O’Mally was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid but was determined to finish school and overcome these struggles which meant dropping some classes and developing relationships with professors in order to explain what she was dealing with. In 2001, O’Mally graduated, she said, “by the skin of my teeth.”

It was after graduating from Geneseo that O’Mally learned her first round of important life lessons. She discovered that, while you can have the best plans for your life, life can throw a curveball that knocks all of those plans out of place. She also realized that asking for help should not be viewed as a weakness and that if you’re ever struggling, you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to those around you.

O’Mally’s first job out of college was with Frontier Communications as a phone operator. It was while working there that she became really sick, and visits to the emergency room only turned up misdiagnoses of bronchitis and pneumonia. Eventually, with a push from her mother, O’Mally went back to the emergency room for a chest x-ray which finally uncovered the root of her problems: she had an enlarged heart and a large blood clot in her heart’s left ventricle.

“I had just turned 24 and had this chronic condition. Sadly, I thought I was going to die,” O’Mally said. “I didn’t know of any of my friends who had been through this. I had no one to relate to.”

A silver lining appeared to O’Mally when, while coming to grips with her condition, investment bank JP Morgan Chase called her for an interview. She received the job, beginning only weeks after being discharged from the hospital. The medications O’Mally had been put on to deal with the blood clots left her feeling tired and cranky which she knew wasn’t the right way to start in a new position, with that kind of attitude. 

“I had to adjust and, because I was so young, I did,” O’Mally said.

A few months passed and O’Mally’s heart wasn’t getting any better. It was then that doctors decided to place her on the national organ transplant list in the hopes that she would receive a new heart. She balanced being in and out of the hospital for treatments with her full-time job but eventually, doctors realized she needed to live in the hospital while waiting for a heart.

“During that time, I was experiencing depression … I did lose hope at times because we had moments where I thought I was going to get a heart and it didn’t work out,” O’Mally said. Two weeks after her 25th birthday, however, nurses came into her room and told her they may have found a match for a new heart.

O’Mally underwent surgery for a heart transplant in 2004. “Going through the heart transplant, I realized that life is precious. The small things that I was focusing on didn’t really matter. I had to look at the bigger thing here: I’m alive,” she said.

Six months after surgery, O’Mally went back to work full time. By 2007, she had moved on from JP Morgan Chase into a new job, living in a new apartment and working on her master’s degree. It was during this time that O’Mally got involved with the Finger Lakes Donation Recovery Network, trying to get others engaged in becoming a registered organ donor.

A large gap exists between people who need organ transplants and those who are registered donors, according to O’Mally. Her goal became to raise awareness for organ donation, especially in minority communities. She ended up using that goal as the basis for her master’s thesis in building awareness in the African American community as it relates to organ donation.

It was at this phase in O’Mally’s life that she came to understand another round of life’s lessons. “There is such a thing as biting off more than you can chew. Life isn’t always linear; it’s more of a wave.”

After finishing her masters and exploring possible careers options, O’Mally connected with Thomas Feeley, a professor at the University of Buffalo who specialized in organ donation research. She was accepted into the University of Buffalo and moved to Buffalo to work on receiving her doctorate full-time. 

O’Mally studied message effects and how messages could be used to encourage people to become organ donors. She received her degree in health communication, hoping to give chronically ill people a voice so that they could be a part of their own health care. Completing her work in July 2018, she successfully defended her research and was awarded her doctorate.

It was after this third phase of schooling that O’Mally learned her last round of life lessons. She now knows you have to be committed to whatever you’re hoping to achieve and that having compassion for yourself and for others is keys. She also learned the difference between intelligence and determination, explaining that if you’re not determined to do something with your intelligence, you won’t go anywhere.

“As I stand here talking to you as Dr. O’Mally, it all started as a dream that turned into a passion that is now my life’s work,” O’Mally said. “I’m here telling you to never give up. You’re capable and able to accomplish anything you put your mind to.”