For many of us, the heart symbol is a bit of a ubiquitous cliché today; it says love about as meaningfully as a candy cane says Christmas.

But every time Heidi Ash makes one of her raspberry silk hearts or mint mini kiss hearts, she is reminded of the miraculous event that saved and changed her life.

Ash was born with a congenital heart defect and had her first heart surgery when she was five days old. It was a persistent problem as she grew up.

"Most of my childhood memories are from the hospital," said Ash. "I have more memories from the hospital than I do from school."

By the time she was 38, Ash had had seven open heart surgeries. "My heart just kind of wore out," she said.

She spent more than seven months on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and finally got one in March 2000 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

The effect was immediate. "Even though I was heavily sedated, I thought, 'What is this feeling?'" said Ash. "I was taking a full breath from the bottom of my lungs for the first time. It was amazing."

Ash spent 11 days at Mayo after her transplant. As she recovered at home in Duluth, where she grew up, Ash found one activity to be particularly therapeutic -- making chocolate candy.

At first she made candies for friends and family and as gifts to the many hospital workers who worked with her on a regular basis.

"I was a professional patient," she said. "I have so much admiration for the doctors and nurses, but also for the technicians and everybody who work at hospitals."

A small box of chocolate truffles was one way to show her appreciation.

The candy got such a positive response, Ash decided to take a leap of faith in 2008 and opened a commercial kitchen in Superior, Wis. She was the 185th person to receive a heart transplant at Mayo, so she named her company in honor of it: 185Chocolat.

As she puts it on her website ( "The transplant was a joyous event in my life. It allowed me to follow my dream, creating chocolates. Chocolates are my passion; 185Chocolat is a blissful celebration, just like life ought to be."

Ash, who has recovered from the transplant well enough to work, hand paints each chocolate and gives the varieties fanciful names such as Caramel Knowledge and Luscious Lemon. She says she would never have become an entrepreneur without the help of a donor and Mayo Clinic, so now she spreads the love.

To honor organ recipients and their caregivers at the Mayo Clinic, 185chocolat donates a portion of all proceeds to the Charity Transplant Fund, which goes directly to help individuals with non-medical costs such as housing and food.

Her candies are featured at J.J. Astor's restaurant in Duluth and a few locations in the Twin Cities, or by mail by going to Ash's website.

Because she has been close to death more than once, Ash said she has learned to appreciate the subtle things in life. Chocolate has created fond memories ever since her father made fudge in the kitchen on weekend mornings. Now she's passing that along.

"My goal is to make the world more beautiful and delicious through chocolate," she said. • 612-673-1702