Fact Check

2 Men Shared Same Heart, Same Wife, Same Cause of Death?

A heart transplant recipient met his donor's wife, married her, then died in the same way as his donor.

Published March 9, 2024

Sonny Graham, centre, is seen with his daughter Michelle Graham Crozier and his son Gray Graham in this 2006 photo. (AP Photo/Michelle Graham Crozier)
Sonny Graham, centre, is seen with his daughter Michelle Graham Crozier and his son Gray Graham in this 2006 photo. (Image courtesy of AP Photo/Michelle Graham Crozier)
Viral social media posts accurately claimed a heart transplant recipient married his donor's wife, then died in the exact same way the donor had.

On Feb. 21, 2024, a viral Reddit post claimed that a heart transplant recipient met his donor's widow, married her, then committed suicide in the same way as his donor.

The post had garnered 12,000 upvotes at the time of this writing, with many redditors speculating that the men had not actually died of suicide, and that the wife may have been behind their deaths. In 2019, the claim returned in another Reddit post, and gained 26,000 upvotes: 

[Today I learned] that after a man received a heart transplant from a suicide victim, he went on to marry the donor's widow and then eventually killed himself in the exact same way the donor did.

In early 2023, a TikTok video repeated the story, resulting in 14,100 likes and 745 shares.

The claim, which is true, has received a good deal of mainstream media coverage over the years. The 2024 Reddit post included a link to an article on CBS News' website, published on Sept. 1, 2008. We reviewed this article, as well as other well-sourced accounts from The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, South Carolina), NBC NewsThe Seattle Times and The Associated Press

Parallel Lives in South Carolina 

Sonny Graham, a 69-year-old man in Georgia, fatally shot himself on April 1, 2008. This happened 12 years after he received a heart transplant from 33-year-old Terry Cottle, who'd also fatally shot himself. They had also both married the same woman.

When they first met, Terry Cottle and Cheryl Sweat were each married to someone else. Sweat had her marriage annulled. Cottle's divorce was granted in May 1989. Nine days after that, Sweat and Cottle got married and moved in together in Moncks Corner, S.C. Cheryl Cottle had two boys from her previous marriage, whom Terry Cottle adopted, and the two had a daughter together. A few years later, difficulties appeared in the marriage. After an argument on March 15, 1995, Cottle killed himself at their home. 

In Hilton Head, S.C., Sonny Graham, then 57, was waiting for a donor heart. His had been weakened by a virus a year before, and he was placed on the transplant list. Graham had been married to the same woman for more than 30 years and had two children. When Cheryl Cottle agreed to take her husband off life support, his heart went to Graham.

Graham Meets the Widow

In 1996, Graham decided to contact Cottle's family to thank them for his new heart. After a few exchanged letters, Graham and Cheryl Cottle met in early 1997, and though Graham said he fell in love with her instantly, she would marry someone else a few months later, in April 1997. She had another son from this marriage. She and Graham stayed in touch. 

In 2001, Graham obtained a divorce after 38 years of marriage. He and Cheryl moved in together shortly thereafter, but it would only be a few months before she would move out. The separation was acrimonious and Graham sued her for money owed. She soon met someone else, and married again. 

The Pair Finally Marry  

After she got a divorce in 2004, she finally married Graham. But according to friends, Graham began to act strangely and seemed preoccupied. He drew up a will and asked his nephew to be the executor. Eventually, on April 1, 2008, he, as Terry Cottle had done many years before, took a gun and fatally shot himself. 

As his nephew and others would discover, Graham had drained his savings to keep her happy, according to CBS News. He had been deep in debt. His financial troubles were so dire his nephew declined to act as executor of the will.

Left a widow a second time, she soon moved on. The CBS News article, however, gives more context:

Investigators have interviewed all three of Cheryl Graham's surviving exes. (...)

During a 2005 dispute over custody of their grandchildren, first husband Isaac "Bo" Carter said Cheryl called his North Carolina home and threatened to "blow my brains out w/her 38 pistol ..." A protective order was granted.

Johnson, husband No. 4, says anyone who gets involved with his ex-wife is in for an emotional roller coaster ride.

"One day she hates you and one day she loves you and the next day she hates you," Johnson told the AP. "I guess I am lucky to be alive."

'Unanswered Questions' 

In a February 2010 update, The Associated Press reported that some of Graham's family members questioned the official explanation that he shot himself: 

Michelle and Lauren Crozier, Graham's daughter and granddaughter, have repeatedly questioned why Graham would kill himself when he had gotten up early to plan a day that included a party, why he would use birdshot to kill himself when he had more efficient options available and why his wife sent her son a computer message of "call me!!" almost three hours before Graham's body was discovered.

While conceding there were still "unanswered questions," the Georgia Bureau of Investigation nevertheless stood by its Sept. 22, 2009, conclusion that Graham shot himself in the neck with a shotgun. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor.



'Man with Suicide Victim's Heart Takes Own Life'. NBC News, 6 Apr. 2008, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna23984857.

Recipient of Suicide Victim's Heart Kills Self 12 Years Later, 6 Apr. 2008, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/recipient-of-suicide-victims-heart-kills-self-12-years-later/.

2 Suicide Victims Shared Same Heart, Wife - CBS News. 1 Sept. 2008, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/2-suicide-victims-shared-same-heart-wife/.

"GBI: Heart Recipient Committed Suicide." The Times and Democrat, 22 Feb. 2010, p. 4. newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-times-and-democrat/142669372/.

"Questions Linger After Suicide Ruling in Graham Death." The Island Packet, 22 Nov. 2009, p. 1. newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-island-packet/142814707/.

Anna Rascouët-Paz is based in Brooklyn, fluent in numerous languages and specializes in science and economic topics.