GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (WZZM) — It's been a long-debated topic ever since organ transplants became possible: Can organ-donation recipients really inherit memories, talents, and qualities of the donor?
Dr. Michael Hagan believes it happens. In fact, he says he's living proof.
"It's not that I wished it to happen," Hagan says. "It just happened."
Ten years ago, Hagan had a liver transplant after contracting hepatitis C as an ER physician. He admits he experienced new cravings after the transplant.
"I never ate avocado before; now, I eat an avocado every day," he said. "And before my transplant, I never cared for barbecue things, and after my transplant I really liked barbecue."
Something else changed, too, for the veteran ER doctor who was trained to keep his emotions in check.
"After my transplant, I found that I became very, very emotional -- so much so that I could go to almost any movie and cry in the movie, and that was very unlike me."
Was Hagan taking on the characteristics of his donor, a person he never knew? Or was he simply reacting out of deep gratitude for the gift of life he was given?
Dr. Asgar Kahgahni is a heart transplant surgeon with Spectrum Health. He's conducted more than a thousand transplants during his 30 years.
"You hear a lot of stories about that side of it," Kahgahni says.
Even so, he's skeptical about the idea of a donor passing personality traits to their recipients, also known as cellular memory transference. In short, it's the reported ability of cells to physically transfer a donor's characteristics into a transplant recipient.
Kahgahni says the more logical explanation is what's known as the hospital grapevine, which is when "people mention something in the OR or mention something in the room before [the patient] went down. Someone may say, 'Where is the donor coming from, oh, from this place.' Or somebody mentions something in the OR, and [the patients] hear things, and then they have some information."
Because the patient is in a heightened emotional state, Kahgahni says he or she clings to the information as a way to connect with the person giving them new life.
"These are a lot of natural things, I think. People after transplantation can think about it."
Kahghani adds it's not something reported by every transplant patient.
"There are thousands and thousands of transplant patients who don't report anything."
But Hagan would disagree: "I believe it's real," he said, because something inexplicable happened when he discovered Shamika Jones, a young mother who was murdered, was his donor.
He felt compelled to attend her trial, and though Hagan was a stranger to them, Shamika's father invited him to pray with them.
"This was his prayer -- and this is a quote -- 'Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. We've been praying all these weeks that the spirit of Shamika would be in the courtroom watching over the judge and the jury.'"
A few weeks later, Dr. Hagan was granted permission to meet Shamika's family. He learned she loved avocados and barbecue, and that she was an emotionally passionate woman -- all of the changes that Dr. Hagan noticed in himself after the transplant.
"It was like confirming that this is what she had and this is what I have," he said. "It was kind of a satisfaction of coming to the end of a mystery."
And to those who still question the possibility of organ memory transference Michael only has this to say: "Wait until you've had a transplant and experience it, and then you'll know."
There have been many unscientific studies that look at how memories could be transferred at the cellular level, but no one has taken on the challenge of trying to conduct scientific experiments to prove if it is possible.