“We Have to Dispel the Fears”

April 29, 2014
Sonji Woods

Sonji Woods

Ten years ago, realtor and U.S. Army Reserve veteran Sonji Woods was planning her wedding. Business was great. “I was just starting my life,” she recalls.

That’s when her doctor told her that her kidneys would eventually fail. She didn’t feel or look sick. She went on with life and wedding plans. But in November 2007 she woke up one day with dizziness that only grew worse. She drove to the hospital and was immediately admitted. “I was told I had enough toxins in my body to kill a six-foot, 220-pound man,” says petite Sonji, who stands just 5’2.”

She was put on kidney dialysis the next day. “It was a shock because no one in our family had ever suffered from kidney disease,” she says. “I was always thin, I was active and I ate right most of the time. How could I be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease?”

Without other physical issues, Sonji was told she was an excellent candidate for a kidney transplant. But her heart sank at learning it might be years before a kidney donor became available. She wondered: “Could I be on dialysis that long and maintain a decent quality of life? Would I even live that long?”

Over the next four-and-a-half years, Sonji suffered multiple internal infections, severe fatigue and anemia. She endured extended hospital stays and allergies from the drugs required to treat her infections. Her appearance changed. “It was bad! It was just as hard on my family. My marriage took a hit. But my mom stepped in, and she has been phenomenal.”

In what felt like the nick of time, Sonji says, the telephone call came: A kidney donor was available. She underwent a kidney transplant, and today, “I have gone back to full-time real estate sales, and I am doing great!” she reports.

As an Advocates for Hope volunteer for Gift of Hope, Sonji spreads an important message. “We have to dispel the fears and negative moral stigmas attached to organ and tissue donation, especially in our minority communities,” says Woods, who is African-American. “Minorities make up the largest group of people needing organs, so we should be the largest group of donors.”

Even before she needed a kidney transplant, Sonji had “organ donor” on her driver’s license. “I knew I wanted someone else to have my organs. Six years is just too long to wait for a lifesaving organ.”


Knocked for a Lupus

April 18, 2014

LUPUS (LOO•puss, n.): A chronic autoimmune disease in which the body develops antibodies that react against its own normal tissue. More than 2 million people in the United States have the condition, more than cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis combined. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, swollen or painful joints, fever, rashes and kidney problems.

Yessenia and her husband Cory

Yessenia and her husband Cory

Yessenia Wallace says she never heard the word lupus until her doctor diagnosed her with the disorder in April 2005. “I started to realize that every time I got sick, whether it was a cold or something more serious, I would have a lot of pain and feel unbelievably tired,” the Gift of Hope Advocates for Hope volunteer relates. “My hair even started to fall out. After years of medications and doctor visits, I thought I was finally in the clear.”

She wasn’t. She was hospitalized in 2011 for congestive heart failure, and doctors discovered that her function had dropped significantly. “They believe the lupus caused it,” Yessenia explains. “I was already in Stage 3 kidney failure.”

Her kidney function continued to fall precipitously, from 25 percent to 15 percent in three months. “Dialysis and transplantation were my only options,” she says. “This was easily the most difficult thing I have ever gone through. I remember being so scared and confused as to what my future would hold.”

Now with her lupus under control, the 25-year-old newlywed undergoes daily dialysis treatments and is approaching one year on the kidney transplant waiting list.

Yessina and Cory walking down the aisle

Yessenia and Cory walking down the aisle

“I am so grateful to have a wonderful support system,” Yessenia says. She singles out her husband, Cory, whom she married last September, as being unbelievably supportive. “The entire time we’ve been together he has seen me struggle with kidney disease. He works at the hospital where my testing is done, and it’s so nice that whenever I’m in the hospital he can be with me.”

As soon as she turned 18, long before she became ill or needed a transplant, Yessenia signed up to be an organ and tissue donor “to give someone a second chance or even just to set a good example. It’s amazing how many people don’t know about it. There are 5,000 people just in Illinois who need transplants.”

Her health problems have shown her how important donation is. “So many people need this to give them life again. It brings me to tears to think that someone out there might give me the chance to live a normal life. I’m one of 5,000 people in Illinois waiting for another chance. Every time I see someone’s transplant success story, I think to myself, ‘Thank you, God, for sending us another miracle.’ That’s exactly what donation is, a miracle.”

A Giving Nature Endures Through Donation

April 16, 2014
Javier in Chicago

Javier in Chicago

Javier Nuñez was a big man with a big heart — as big as all outdoors. “He cared a lot about his family and friends and helped them any way he could,” his younger sister, Angie Merryman, recalls. “Many times he helped me with my college expenses. But he preferred to go unnoticed for the good he did.”

He also loved the outdoors, especially cycling. “He biked to work in Chicago every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow,” Angie says.

Tragically, Javier was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver at the stunningly young age of 37. “At the time, they attributed it to having a fatty liver, which is very common among Hispanics,” says Angie. “My aunt on my mother’s side passed away from liver disease. I was told Javier had a 50 percent chance of surviving three months. It was devastating for our family.”

However, Angie, her parents and her four brothers and sisters rallied around Javier, working tirelessly to keep him well enough to be considered for a liver transplant. Finally, 10 months later, in December 2010, he was placed on the transplant waiting list. “But we could tell Javier was becoming much sicker,” Angie says. “He ended up in the ICU, hanging on to life.”

On Javier’s 39th birthday, doctors were notified of a matching donor. But just four days later, joy turned to tragedy when Javier died of a massive brain hemorrhage.

“It was tremendously heartbreaking, of course,” says Angie. “But knowing he had registered as an organ donor, my father immediately asked, ‘Can any of his organs be donated?’ This is how we found comfort during this difficult time.”

Ultimately, Javier’s corneas were recovered and transplanted, and his tissue gifts have been used in 46 procedures. Even in death, Javier’s giving nature endured.

Javier and his family celebrating Thanksgiving in 2009

Javier and his family celebrating Thanksgiving in 2009

“I kept my brother’s driver’s license, and when I look at it I think of the quick signature, the few keystrokes it takes to register as a donor,” says Angie. “Those simple actions are tremendously powerful and carry so much meaning, not only to the individual, but to all those who love and care for that person. They mean a miracle. They mean hope.”

Tragically, hope was lost for Angie and Javier’s mother, who was diagnosed with cirrhosis the same month Javier died in 2011. While on the waiting list for a liver transplant, his mother died of end-stage liver disease on March 8 of this year. “The statistics say 18 people die every day waiting for a transplant,” Angie says. “Last month my mother became one of those statistics.”

New Life on Easter Sunday

April 15, 2014
Ryan Landers

Ryan Landers

On Good Friday, April 6, 2007, Ryan Joseph Landers was severely injured in a head-on car accident on a two-lane road near Springfield, Ill. The 19-year-old automotive technology student was on his way to work, riding in his pride and joy — a 2000 Honda Civic SI.

First responders struggled to free Ryan from the wreckage for 45 minutes. One fireman climbed inside the mangled car to administer oxygen and calm Ryan. But he never regained consciousness.

Ryan was declared brain-dead on April 7. He had expressed his interest in being an organ and tissue donor to his family, and they complied with his wishes. They found Gift of Hope supportive and compassionate during an agonizing time.

On Easter Sunday 2007, Ryan offered the gift of life as an organ and tissue donor. He was able to donate four organs, and his tissue gifts have benefitted 61 people in 12 states and the Republic of South Korea. Recipients have ranged from a four-month-old boy to an 87-year-old man.

The 39-year-old man from Poplar Grove, Ill., who received Ryan’s right kidney and pancreas had been losing a 26-year battle with diabetes. In a note of thanks, he wrote, “Not a day goes by that I don’t say a prayer for my donor family and the gifts that they shared. Through the doctor’s skilled hands a miracle was performed. After 26 years, I am free once more.”

To honor Ryan, his parents, Pat and Jay, established the Ryan J. Landers Memorial Scholarship in Automotive Technology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. Since establishing the scholarship in spring 2009, six people have received academic awards. Pat and Jay have met most of the recipients, and Ryan’s story is always shared with them. And in their dedicated work as Advocates for Hope volunteers for Gift of Hope, they share Ryan’s story as often as they can to underscore the importance of being a registered donor and how that selfless decision can help others.

Ryan's parents, Jay & Pat, are active Gift of Hope volunteers.

Ryan’s parents, Jay & Pat, are active Gift of Hope volunteers.

Ryan’s friends remembered him as having a constant smile and being able to brighten their days. He excelled in art and enjoyed working with kids. He loved skateboarding, guitars and working on cars.

With Ryan’s sister, Kelly, and his brother, Chris, Pat and Jay have volunteered at many public education and special events to promote organ and tissue donation. The couple also co-chairs the Springfield Life Goes On committee and speaks on behalf of Gift of Hope.

The Landers Family never expected to be on this journey. “We wish we’d never met you,” is what they often say to other donor families when they get together. But amid the long shadow cast by the tremendous loss of a loved one, Ryan’s light shines brightly created by the legacy he left as of organ and tissue donor.

A Father’s Lasting Gift of Life and Love

April 11, 2014


Erin and her dad at the Transplant Games.

Erin and her dad at the Transplant Games.

Erin Fitzgerald arrived two weeks early on June 28, 1996, a petite 5 pounds, 1 ounce and 18 inches long. Everything seemed to be fine, except for her poor appetite.

She began losing weight, and her doctors ordered all kinds of tests, which determined she had dysplastic kidneys. Her kidneys were not completely formed and had very little function. She was just two weeks old.

A nephrologist told Erin’s parents she would be on dialysis within six months. Her best hope for survival was a transplant, but for her tiny body to receive an adult kidney, she had to weigh 20 pounds. It was devastating news.

Erin’s parents worked diligently to fatten her up. They tucked a bottle in her mouth as she slept so her sucking reflex kicked in and she took in a few ounces. Weight gain was slow, so doctors recommended a feeding tube.

“We would feed through a tube in her stomach several times during the day, and a pump would run formula into her all night,” her mom, Jamie, recalls. “She did start to gain weight, but she was so sick all of the time. She threw up constantly. It was a struggle to keep the weight on.”

Erin’s parents were thrilled their daughter’s kidneys continued to function until fall 1997, but they realized a transplant deadline fast approached when her ongoing test results showed a decline in her health status. As desperation levels rose, Erin’s dad, Pat, was tested as a potential living kidney donor.

He was a match.

Although Erin weighed just 18 pounds at 18 months of age — two pounds under the target weight for a transplant — her doctors said the time was right. The transplant surgery was performed on Dec. 29, 1997, at Children’s Memorial Hospital of Illinois at OSF St. Francis Medial Center in Peoria, Ill.

Erin on dialysis with her dad.

Erin on dialysis with her dad.

Erin’s family rejoiced that the transplant was a success. Some complications arose, and Erin spent a month in the hospital. And more surgeries followed to repair a renal artery and two bowel obstructions. But she overcame all obstacles she encountered.

Since then, Erin has made the most of life, winning medals in four U.S. Transplant Games and enjoying soccer, basketball, softball and snowboarding. Now s a senior in high school, she works to promote organ donation as an Advocates for Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope and plans to attend college, thanks to the generous gift from her dad.

So Excited About Life

April 6, 2014
Lisa gets to spend time with her two sons because someone said "Yes" to organ donation.

Lisa gets to spend time with her two sons because someone said “Yes” to organ donation.

Fifteen years after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant, Lisa Givens now has more energy than most people. “I am so excited about life and my two sons, who are now 30 and 23,” Lisa says.

She lives a satisfying life today thanks to the generosity an organ donor.

In 1990, Lisa was a 25-year-old licensed beautician. She finished with her last client one day and noticed that her ankles and hands were swelling. “I immediately knew that something was wrong,” she says. She was rushed to a hospital emergency room where she learned that she had high blood pressure and was suffering from kidney disease. “I was caught off guard with a diagnosis of end-stage renal failure,” she says.

Lisa in front of a memorial to another great organ donation advocate, Walter Payton.

Lisa in front of a memorial to another great organ donation advocate, Walter Payton.

Life changed completely at that point. She went into denial, lost energy and could no longer work, especially after starting dialysis three times a week. “I was barely able to care for my two boys,” Lisa recalls. “I prayed and asked God to allow me to live to see my children reach the age of 18.”

Lisa was placed on the transplant waiting list for a lifesaving kidney. In January 1999, during one of her three-hour dialysis treatments, Lisa received the call that she had been praying for: A kidney match was available for her, and she received her transplant later that same day.

Today, Lisa is an Advocates of Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope, and she is forever grateful for another chance at life. “I am a living proof that organ donation really works,” she says. “I thank my sons for never giving up on their mom. And, most of all, may God bless my organ donor.”

Donation Offers Breath of Life

April 5, 2014
Jason wasn't supposed to see his first birthday. Here he is celebrating his 30th.

Jason wasn’t supposed to see his first birthday. Here he is celebrating his 30th.

Diagnosed at birth with cystic fibrosis — a disease that critically affects the lungs — Jason Wiltfang was expected to live two weeks. He is 33 today, thanks to organ donation.

Jason beat the early odds to live a relatively normal childhood, taking part in active sports like baseball and wrestling. But as he reached his mid-20s, his health declined, and he was placed on the lung transplant waiting list. In November 2011, his family received the call that a possible donor was available. At the hospital “the doctor came in to tell us that the lungs were a match,” recalls his sister, Kristina.

After the transplant, Jason was able to go bowling again, attend family get-togethers and go places with friends. “We were overjoyed but devastated for the family of the donor because that could have been us — we could have lost someone we love,” Kristina says.

Jason and his family as the prep for his lung transplant.

Jason and his family as the prep for his lung transplant.

In July 2013, Jason again was rushed to the hospital. His transplanted lungs had given him all the new life they could, and he needed another transplant. “We hoped and prayed every night for a new donor match for Jason,” Kristina says. “At the same time we felt bad for the loss that had to come.”

Months passed, and Jason’s body started to give up. Even worse, he began to lose hope. “My husband and I went to visit him,” Kristina says. “As I was leaving, I thought that was it. I thought I was saying goodbye to my best friend for good.”

Two days later, the family was called to the hospital. A lung donor had been found. “The best part of the day was seeing the huge smile on Jason’s face and his will to fight restored,” Kristina says.

Jason shortly after his transplant.

Jason shortly after his transplant.

Jason received his transplant and today is recovering and beating all odds against him, his sister says. “Imagine lying in that hospital bed, day in and day out, waiting to take your last breath. Now imagine being able to get out of it after seven months. Because of organ donation, my hero will be able to do that soon.”

Organ donation is a true gift of life and a large benefactor in Jason’s life, Kristina says. “That is why I’m an Advocates for Hope volunteer for Gift of Hope, and I hope to have my brother get involved with me as soon as he is able.”

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