The Best Birthday Gift Ever!

April 28, 2014
Melody with the Advocate Lutheran General intensive care team that treated her during her wait for a heart transplant.

Melody with the Advocate Condell intensive care team that treated her during her wait for a heart transplant.

“Prayers do get answered,” says Melody Hickman McIntosh. On her 40th birthday, she was “barely holding on to life,” and on her 41st birthday she received the gift of life. “In a million years, who would expect someone to die on your birthday to allow you to receive a heart transplant?” she asks. “I can’t explain it. All I know is that prayers do get answered, and this was the best birthday gift ever!”

Melody with her LVAD just days before her transplant.

Melody with her LVAD just days before her transplant.

A year earlier, Melody had suffered a massive heart attack and was on life support. Before the heart attack, Melody was like any other woman. “I was healthy and living life to the fullest,” she says. “My husband and I were excited about starting a family.”

But then the unexpected happened with the heart attack and, afterward, she lay in a coma for nearly a month. “I was on 24-hour dialysis. Everything had shut down,” she says. The healthcare team at the hospital told her husband, Arthur, to gather the family and prepare to say good-bye.

Fortunately, the family did not have to say good-bye. Instead, Melody was transported to another hospital where a left ventricular assist device — a bridge to heart transplantation — was implanted, and she was placed on the heart transplant waiting list.

Melody and her husband Arthur

Melody and her husband Arthur

Melody was on the LVAD for nearly a year when the miracle happened. On her 41st birthday. she received the birthday gift of a new heart. “I’m so thankful, so much so that I want to do something for someone else because someone gave me a second chance at life.”


Two People, Three Organ Transplants, Immeasurable Gratitude

April 23, 2014
Donna Ramusack -- an advocate for the Hospitals for Hope campaign.

Donna Ramusack — an advocate for the Hospitals for Hope campaign.

Donna Ramusack has been a registered nurse for 50 years, but none of her training prepared her for medical challenges she faced in her own family. The first came when her daughter, Leslie, was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and learned she needed a heart transplant to live. “Her diagnosis sent shockwaves throughout our family,” Donna says. “Could this have been prevented? Would her name ever make it off the transplant list?”

They also wondered if other family members would face similar fates. Leslie was fortunate because, after being listed with a major transplant center, she had to wait only two months to receive her heart transplant on April 1, 2001. After her daughter’s recovery, Donna said she thought her family had put the worst of the disease behind them. “But I began to experience the same symptoms of breathing difficulties and fainting spells that I had watched my daughter battle,” Donna says.

After a complete workup at a transplant center, Donna was told that, in addition to a new heart, she also needed a kidney transplant. “I was fortunate to receive transplants after seven days on the transplant list,” she says. They both came from the same donor. It was June 17, 2004, only three years after her daughter’s surgery.

The Ramusack family

The Ramusack family

“I feel profound gratitude to my donor’s family,” Donna says. “I know that a difficult and emotional decision was made by the families for both of us.” Just eight days after surgery, Donna was discharged to begin rehab. “I credit my stellar surgical team and the nurses for providing exceptional care and helping to expedite my recovery process,” she says. “I also had tremendous support from my husband and family.”

Donna now makes the most out of every moment and never takes the things that life has to offer for granted. “A near-death experience makes you worry less about the little things and focus on the things that are important,” she says. “Life gives you may challenges, and you can either go down in defeat or rise up in victory. My daughter and I chose the latter.”

Donna is now an Advocates for Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope. She is promoting organ and tissue donation at the hospital where she works and at churches, schools and other organizations. “I find there are still many misconceptions about donation, and I hope to calm those fears,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that gift of life made by my donor family 10 years ago.”


“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.”


“He Will Always Be a Hero”

April 8, 2014
Lucy and her sisters

Lucie and her sisters

A friend once asked Lucie Gleason, “Is your hair naturally curly?” Her joking reply? “No, I had a really bad perm once.”

If the explanation were only that simple.

At age five, Lucie was a healthy, gregarious child with thick, straight hair. Like any child, she had her whole life ahead of her. Today, she is a healthy, gregarious teenager with curly hair. And her whole life remains ahead of her — thanks to a liver transplant.

Lucie prior to her transplant

Lucie prior to her transplant

Just before starting kindergarten, Lucie fell ill with a high fever that wouldn’t subside. After her stomach began to hurt, her doctors ordered a CAT scan. The results showed a rare and rapidly growing tumor in her liver. Lucie began intense chemotherapy to treat the cancer. As her hair fell out and her small body weakened, the tumor — the size of a small Nerf football — grew rapidly out of control. Her last and best hope was a liver transplant.

“We prayed so hard for a miracle,” says Lucie’s mother, Leah.

In July 2003, that miracle arrived: A donated liver for Lucie became available. Her cancerous liver was removed, and surgeons transplanted part of a liver donated by a man who had registered to become an organ donor upon his death. The larger part of his liver — the only human organ that can regenerate — was transplanted into a woman who had been on the transplant waiting list for some time, the Gleasons later learned. His generosity save two people’s lives.

Lucie today

Lucie today

After her transplant, Lucie returned to health. Her once-straight hair started to grow back curly, and she was strong enough to join her kindergarten class that fall.

Four years after her liver transplant, doctors told the Gleasons that Lucie was cancer-free. Today, 10 years after her transplant, she remains robustly healthy. A high school honor student who enjoys lacrosse, cake decorating and face painting, Lucie also volunteers for and promotes causes related to cancer awareness, liver disease and organ donation.

“Because of the transplant, Lucie can look forward to a long life,” says Leah, an Advocates of Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope.

Lucie recently received her driver’s permit and fully understands the significance of joining the state organ and tissue donor registry, which people can do when obtaining their driver’s licenses. “I cannot thank my donor and his family enough for giving me a second chance at life,” she says. “I think about him all the time and the unselfish step he took to register as a donor. He will always be a hero to me.”


Giving Nature Brings Joy and Hope for New Life

April 7, 2014

IMG_1928Marsha Goodheart recalls how her 16-year-old grandson, Ryan Yurs, could light up a room with his smile.

“He was kind, compassionate and sensitive,” she says. “He smiled on the outside but had an inner battle going on inside.”

Ryan Yurs struggled with depression and mental health issues. “It was hard to watch a once fully alive person to slowly lose his life force and be powerless to help him,” she says.

He ended his inner battle by taking his life in March 2010. “It was by far the worst day of our family’s life,” Marsha says. Her grandson was pronounced dead at the hospital, but his body remained on a respirator as his family struggled to accept their loss.

In providing support to the family, the ICU doctors and nurses explained that Ryan could become an organ and tissue donor. The family understood it was an opportunity “to turn this complete tragedy into a chance to save more lives,” Marsha says.

The Goodheart family with one of Ryan's recipients, Andy.

The Goodheart family with one of Ryan’s recipients, Andy.

“Knowing Ryan’s giving nature, he would have wanted that,” she says. “We said ‘yes’ to allow Ryan to live on by becoming an organ and tissue donor.”

The recipient of Ryan's lungs, Joe.

The recipient of Ryan’s lungs, Joe.

As a result, Ryan gave life to several recipients of his heart, lungs, liver, corneas, bone and other tissues. His family has since received nine letters from people whose lives he saved and improved.

“We have met the lung and liver recipients. They are such gracious people,” Marsha says. “When I look in their eyes, I see Ryan’s smile again. I see joy and happiness and hope for new life. Nothing can take away our loss and pain of losing Ryan. But we know Ryan is a hero, not only to us, but to many others as well. It is amazing how just one donor can save or enhance the lives of more than 25 people. And Ryan is now a part of this.”

Marsha urges others to register as donors. “You may have a chance to make a difference, help save lives and give hope to families. Sign up to be an organ and tissue donor and encourage your family and friends to become one, too.”


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