As One Life Ends, Another Begins

April 21, 2014


The message from two policemen at the door was every parent’s worst fear.

“Is Christopher Michaels your son? There’s been an accident,” one officer said.

Paramedics returning from another call were on the scene within moments after Chris was struck by a car Aug. 6, 2013. He was rollerblading home after volunteering at a local YMCA event.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t hold out much hope. Chris had suffered severe head trauma and was on a ventilator. He never regained consciousness. He was just 22. So strong, so handsome and so full of life.

Representatives of Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network asked if the family would consider organ donation for Chris — he was a registered donor. Their approach was gentle, but his mom, Jane, was in shock.

After a few hours, Jane was ready to honor Chris’ commitment. His brother, Dan, asked if the family could choose who would receive one of Chris’ kidneys — make a “directed donation” — if there was a match with the father of Dan’s close friend. He had been on the kidney transplant waiting list for some time.

The Gift of Hope representative took all of the information needed for a directed donation, and, later, the two families were thrilled to learn there was a match. The chances are rare.

The last good-byes were peaceful. Family had time alone with Chris to talk and pray. They walked arm in arm with Chris down the hall to the door of the operating room where Chris would offer the gift of life. Still, it was heartbreaking to let him go.

One lasting impression was that every member of the Gift of Hope team was extraordinarily kind and compassionate to the family. They always treated Chris with the utmost respect and dignity.

“They did, in fact, give us hope that Chris’ death was not a waste of a precious life, but that he will indeed live on in others,” Jane said. “He will always live in our hearts.”

Twenty years was just not enough time with Chris. He was born on March 22, 1991, on the island of Cebu in the Philippines and joined his family through adoption just after his second birthday.

Chris loved coaching a boys’ traveling soccer team after he graduated from high school and worked in a warehouse. He liked helping others and feeling like a big brother; he was the youngest of three children.

Dan and Jane had the wonderful opportunity to visit with the man who received Chris’ kidney, along with his family, and see how well the dad is doing and what a remarkable difference Chris has made in his life.

Dan’s friend is getting married this summer, and everyone looks forward to seeing his dad dance at the wedding. Chris was a good dancer. Perhaps Dan’s father will have some of Chris’ moves on the dance floor.


La Vida de Uno Afecta a Muchos: The Life of One Affects Many

April 20, 2014
The McKean Family

Colin with his sister Katie and niece Elli

Colin McKean was only 14 when his body started to tell him something was wrong. “I had a rash on my chest, had begun to grow a ‘beer belly’ and my platelet level was extremely low,” he says. After two years of monitoring these symptoms, jaundice set in, and a CT scan revealed his spleen was significantly enlarged. Further tests revealed that Colin had liver disease and cirrhosis.

“The prognosis was not good,” he recalls. “About 88 percent of my liver was compromised, meaning my case was extremely advanced.”

The only solution was a liver transplant.

Colin barely understood the transplant concept, but he did understand that, for him to survive, someone else had to die. “I remember being so overwhelmed by that thought,” he says. “How do you respond to that? You certainly don’t pray for it to happen, but when you pray for your own health, are you not praying for someone else to lose his or hers?”

In May 1996, Colin received his life-giving call, and within 24 hours he had a new liver. “Once I got past the first 48 hours, I was able to reflect on the series of events,” he says. “I remember asking the nurses about my donor, but they could just give me some basic details, nothing traceable.” Later, Colin wrote a thank you note to the family telling them “who I was, where I was from and how I planned to make the best of this opportunity granted to me by their loved one’s selfless choice to be an organ donor.”

Colin went on to graduate from college and today works as an engineer. “I also volunteer with Gift of Hope and other organizations, spreading the important message of organ, tissue, eye and blood donation,” he says.

Colin remembers reading a saying during one of his visits to the transplant clinic after receiving his first transplant: La Vida de Uno Afecta a Muchos: The Life of One Affects Many.

“There are very few days that pass when I don’t think about that saying, how blessed I have been and all of the wonderful, caring people who have made it possible for me to be alive today,” he says. “In the end, the message is quite clear: La Vida de Uno Afecta a Muchos.”

“The Greatest Hero I Never Knew”

April 19, 2014
Shelby and her sister Riley

Shelby and her sister Riley

The second of three girls in her family, Shelby Martin today is a normal, energetic 12-year-old girl “who likes to annoy her big sister,” says her older sister, Riley.

But Shelby once faced an uncertain future: At just 10 weeks of age, she was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a liver disease that affects infants. Its cause is unknown, and treatment options are limited. She needed surgery immediately, or she wouldn’t survive. And her family knew a lifesaving liver transplant would likely be Shelby’s only hope one day.

Shelby with her dad and sisters

Shelby with her dad and sisters

That day came in summer 2011 when Shelby started having breathing problems that grew progressively worse. In October, she had to drop out of school; by December, she was hospitalized and on the waiting list for a liver transplant. She was able to go home in February 2012, but she soon returned to the hospital — confined to an intensive care unit bed and hooked up to oxygen required for survival.

“It was all like a dream,” Riley says. “I would go to school each day and pretend it was all okay. I would laugh and talk and hide my sadness.”

After visiting Shelby in the hospital in April 2012, Riley recalls coming home and thinking over and over, “Seven months, one week and one day.” That was how long Shelby had been waiting for a liver transplant — for “someone to rescue her from her prison.”

Shelby as she waits

Shelby as she waits

The rescue call came in at 4 o’clock the following morning: A donated liver for Shelby had been found. About 12 hours later, Shelby went into surgery to receive her liver transplant. The Martins later learned that Shelby’s donor was a man named Dave, who was a husband and a father of two children.

“That day, he saved her life,” Riley says. “My sister is healthy and alive as can be today because of this man’s gift. I want to thank the family who whose loved one gave Shelby the precious gift of life. But, most of all, I want to thank Dave for being the greatest hero I never knew.”

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.”

Through a Donor’s Gift, He Celebrates

April 17, 2014
Mike and his kids

Mike and his kids

In September 2011, Mike Lund and his family set off for vacation on Washington Island in northern Wisconsin. There, they gathered with extended family to celebrate three birthdays: his wife’s 40th, his brother-in-law’s 40th and his niece’s first.

Yet, Lund was feeling sore and exhausted. He then suffered a heart attack.

He was ferried off Washington Island to a small hospital where he was stabilized and then was rushed to a hospital in Green Bay. There, he received a heart stent, a small tube to help blood flow to his heart. “They mentioned they placed a green and gold one, just so I could represent them in Chicago,” jokes Mike, a staunch Chicago Bears fan.

With each beat, a normal heart pumps out about 60 percent of blood in a filled ventricle to the body. It’s called an “ejection fraction rate.” In Green Bay, Lund’s ejection fraction rate was just 25 percent. After returning to Chicago, his rate declined to 15 percent and then to just 5 percent by Halloween 2011. He was told he needed a heart transplant. To increase his chances of surviving long enough for a donated heart to become available, doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to help his failing heart.

Over the next 14 months, Lund waited for the gift of life. The LAVD improved his health and strength, “which is extremely important for a good transplant outcome,” Mike says.

One day in January 2013, Mike’s sister called. Their mother was in the emergency room, so he and his wife headed to the hospital. On their way, Mike received another call, the one he had been waiting for — a donated heart was available.

The Lund Family

The Lund Family

His mother’s condition turned out to be non-life-threatening, and Mike received his heart transplant. Since then, “I have been feeling better and better,” says Lund, now an Advocates for Hope volunteer for Gift of Hope. “I have written to my donor’s family, and I thank my donor every day,” he says. “I do not know who they are, but, without their gift, I would not be here.”

More than 15 months after a life-giving donor helped him “in the most profound way,” Mike is alive to celebrate his wife’s birthday and many more to come. “I can work full time, play with my three children and celebrate their birthdays,” he says. “I am grateful to have celebrated my 23rd wedding anniversary with my wife.

“Thank you to all past, current and future donors. You make the ultimate difference.”

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.”

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.

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