May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

ON MAY 29, 1988, CLAIRE SYLVIA became the recipient of the first heart-and-lung transplant ever done in New England, an operation that saved her life after years of cardiopulmonary disease. The donor—Sylvia was told he was an 18-year-old Maine man killed in a motorcycle accident—had given her a new start. She felt renewed. She felt blessed. She felt like a beer.

Huh? Normally this tea-sipping, New Age modern dancer and teacher hated beer. But in the years that followed her 5½-hour operation at Yale-New Haven Hospital, Sylvia claims, she found herself subject to odd new tastes. The green peppers she once loathed, she now loved. She developed a passion for fried chicken. Strangest of all, she fancied herself acting more confident, more aggressive, more…masculine. Strutting down the street, she felt like John Travolta muscling his way through Saturday Night Fever. In a dream, she says, she saw herself with a mystery man she knew only as Tim L. “We kissed, and as we kissed I inhaled him into me,” Sylvia says. The donor’s spirit, she came to believe, had merged into hers.

She became convinced when she met the family of the organ donor, whose name turned out to be Tim Lamirande. His family, Sylvia claims, said her new feelings also described their Tim, right down to the chicken nuggets he loved so much that he had a box of them with him when he died. “I said, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” recalls Sylvia, who tells the story in A Change of Heart (Little, Brown), a memoir that has won her bookings on Oprah, Today and 20/20, a big 200,000-copy first printing and a high six-figure paycheck from Disney for the film rights.

Not surprisingly, skepticism abounds. Sylvia attributes her experience to “cellular memory”—a theory that cells carry far more information than has previously been supposed. Conventional doctors and scientists tend to regard the idea as hokum. “I never really agreed with Claire,” says Gail Eddy, coordinator of Yale-New Haven’s transplant program. “I’ve never had another patient claim anything like that.” Mary Ann Wirtz of the United Network for Organ Sharing says, “We don’t know of anyone who has said cellular memory is legitimate.”

Still, Sylvia defends her story as tenaciously as she has fought for life since her health problems began when she was a little girl. Born in Manhattan to Army physician William Kropf and high school assistant principal Beatrice, both deceased, Sylvia (who took her middle name as her surname after the second of her two marriages failed in 1983) grew up largely in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. As a child she was beset with a heart murmur and as a young adult with glomerulonephritis, a serious kidney disease. But she still became a professional dancer and spent six years performing. After daughter Amara was born in 1972, Sylvia became a home-maker, dance teacher and drama coach in the Boston suburbs. (She now lives in a Victorian house in Hull, Mass.)

But Sylvia’s heart and lungs deteriorated, and in 1983 she was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension, which is usually fatal. Amara, now 25, says that by the mid-80s, her mother “ended up with an oxygen tank and was basically in bed all day.”

After the surgery, Sylvia implored the hospital to tell her if her dreams of a Tim L. had any foundation. Eddy, who concedes that Sylvia got that much of the donor’s name right, refused to tell her anything, citing hospital policy. “She envisioned a lot of things and possibly may even have read into certain things,” Eddy says.

Undaunted, Sylvia unearthed Tim’s identity through a newspaper story about his accident—a sleuthing job that she insists she had not begun before she told Eddy about her dreams of Tim L. When she met the donor’s family in 1991, they showed her the scene of the accident and his grave, then brought her back to their house. Tim’s mother, says Sylvia, “went to the back room, and, I’ll never forget, she came walking toward me with this huge sheet cake she had made with the word Welcome on it. It was really very touching.”

Since then, Sylvia has been living enough for two souls. Daughter Amara reports that her 56-year-old mother stays out until all hours, often dancing with her live-in beau, contractor Jerry Mulcahy, 58. Although Sylvia claims no medical expertise, she is convinced that her new personality is a direct result of her new heart. “Who knows?” she says. “The heart is not just a pump. It’s more than that.”