Emma Rothman ’21 Writes About “Living Like She’s Dying” in Her New Book, “Things My Therapist Told Me Not to Say: Ten Years Post Heart Transplant”

On a first impression, it’s unlikely you would assume that Emma Rothman ‘21—a former Blackstone LaunchPad Global Media Fellow and the 2019 Hunter Brooks Watson Scholar at the LaunchPad —received a life-changing heart transplant when she was just twelve years old. From that day on, she was prescribed a new life structure that never felt like her own. Struggling to find balance between being “normal” and chronically ill, and dealing with issues of body image, guilt, anger, and ego, Emma has been on a long journey to recovery that went beyond her physical health. It’s this exact journey which she shares within the pages of her newly released book, “Things My Therapist Told Me Not to Say: Ten Years Post Heart Transplant.”

Every author sets their sights on the day when they’ll be able to hold their finished book in their hands for the first time, and just a few weeks ago, Emma finally reached that long-awaited finish line. Four carboard boxes showed up on her front doorstep containing a few hundred print copies direct from her publisher. As a first-time author myself at the querying stage, I can only imagine the elation she felt to see her hard work paid off in a tangible form. I was eager to congratulate Emma on this huge accomplishment and dive deeper into her experience with the writing and publication process.

For this book, Emma decided to partner with New Degree Press (NDP), a community-owned hybrid publishing house based out of Potomac, Maryland. Think of it as “guided self-publishing.” Authors who publish with NDP are entitled to the full creative control, intellectual property rights, and royalties from sales of their book, yet maintain the added benefit of marketing, editing, and distribution services like that of a traditional publisher. And for first timers like Emma, NDP also offers a community-based book writing initiative called The Book Creators Program to help authors develop a first draft manuscript over the span of about five months, all while working alongside a cohort of fellow passionate writers.

Emma at an authors’ book reading and signing

“Now that I’m finished, I definitely thought it would feel much easier in hindsight,” Emma told me. “I didn’t really know what to expect going in. It was a huge learning curve, and I had to do a lot more leg work than I’d thought initially. For example, we put a lot of effort into launching and rallying support for a pre-sale crowdfunding campaign last April which paid for the cost of publishing the book, which I’m grateful for. Most of the time, authors are expected to front all the money for publishing, which can easily become a huge barrier for authors of different socio-economic statuses. This type of approach can be great for helping certain stories and voices reach the public that might not be able to otherwise.”

Readers who pick up a copy of the book will be greeted by a colorful, pop art, blue-haired likeness of Emma taking a selfie at a bathroom sink, with the heart transplant scar on her right breast front and center. Generally, the first impression a reader will get from a book is based upon its cover, which is why it’s important for an author to think about a design that best represents their book’s contents. That’s why I wanted to ask Emma—who had legitimately rocked a full head of blue hair at one point in life—what her inspiration for the cover of the book was. The answer that she gave me was incredibly insightful. “The subject matter of the book is pretty deep,” she said. “So, I wanted to have something that could easily reflect that. The cover art is actually based off a random mirror selfie I found in my camera roll that I had forgotten about. But when I discovered that picture again, I liked the premise my book cover being like that mirror selfie because you can’t really hide anything in the mirror; what you see is what you get. I also wanted my scar to be front and center to show that I’ve reclaimed it for myself, because it was something I tried to hide for so long. And then the pop art? That’s just I style I enjoy. The contrast is intense, and I like how it jumps out at you.”

I had the opportunity to read about halfway through Emma’s book before my conversation with her, and I must say, the cover is surely an accurate representation of what’s written on the pages. Emma’s written voice is emotionally raw, courageously unfiltered, and invitingly conversational as she leads you through the personal accounts, experiences, and thoughts that have impacted her life post-transplant. I don’t want to spoil too much—because there is some genuinely good stuff to be spoiled, and I’d highly recommend that you pick up a copy and read for yourself—but something that resonated with me as a reader was the feeling of resentment that she associated with having a traumatic, life-altering event thrust upon her involuntarily. As a transplant recipient, Emma was unable to preserve the same privacy and normalcy that was afforded to other kids her age, and she involuntarily became the poster child of Hearts for Emma, a 501(c) 3 organization spearheaded by her own family and her local community to aid families of children with heart disease and support educational initiatives relating to heart transplantation and organ/tissue donation.

While Emma remains incredibly proud of the effort put forth by her family and community towards the cause, a great deal of her past resentment stemmed from the fact that she was hardly given any agency as to who she wanted to share this vulnerable piece of her life with, not to mention when she wanted to do it and how much she wanted to share. But now that Emma’s had the opportunity to reclaim that power and agency for herself through her own penmanship, she’s feeling a bit differently about it: “There was a lot I had to share with my family and let stew in my own head for so long, and it was getting to be suffocating towards the end. It felt like I was in this cage that’s starting to corrode with rust, and I needed to free myself before it could collapse on my head. But once I hit submit and I saw my book go out in the world, I felt like I shed ten pounds of emotional weight and trauma right then and there.”

Emma continued: “The hard part with authoring about personal experiences is that you’re not just thinking about yourself anymore.  You’re also thinking about different audiences and what they can get out of your story too. I had early drafts written where I was trying too hard to write objectively and hold back my emotions, and the result was a manuscript that read too flatly. So, I made a promise to myself on later drafts to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. When something started to feel icky while writing, my first instinct was to run from it, but because I was also on a deadline and people were holding me accountable, I just needed to keep pushing forward. There are so many things I shared on those pages that I didn’t think I ever would, but the reward that’s coming from that has been hard to fully explain. My truth set me free, and I think it’s doing the same for others.”

Through her book, Emma’s hopes to provide insight into the experience of what it’s like to lead a life as a heart transplant patient, as well as offer her perspective as a child who spent a great deal of her life in and out of the pediatric healthcare system. “When we picture heart transplant patients, we often picture older people who are at the end of their old life,” she said. “But that isn’t always the case, and these people—me included—aren’t as physically incapable as we’re assumed to be. Part of the reason why I chose a conversational style of writing is because I wanted to put some humanity back into the perception of hospital patients.”

Yet, even if you aren’t someone who has experienced a life-altering procedure or is closely related to someone who has, Emma’s candid struggle with her own identity and emotional state is sure to resonate with you in one way or another, because there remains underlying theme to Emma’s message that she wanted to make sure readers understood as we wrapped up our conversation: “When you are talking to people who are transplant recipients, or anybody who has gone through something difficult in general, always let them come to you first. Some might not be as comfortable or willing to talk about their trauma as others, and those individuals can sometimes receive questions that come across as intrusive or hurtful. I know that isn’t always the intention behind it, but what it does show me is that there’s a lot of room for education. People usually come from a place of wanting to know more about what an individual has gone through so that they can orient themselves to better help that individual, but it isn’t always the traumatized person’s job to teach you. Sometimes what that person needs are the time and space to process it for themselves before they open it up to the people who care. I’m hoping readers can take that away from the conversation.”

“Things My Therapist Doesn’t Want Me to Say: Ten Years Post Heart Transplant” is now available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats. If you do choose to purchase and read a copy of the book, please remember to leave a review if you enjoyed it, as it helps independent authors like Emma reach even more readers who could benefit from her story. You can also get in touch with Emma on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok

Story by Jack Rose ’24, Global Media Fellow