BY GUEST BLOGGER REBECCA O’MARRAH
I have always been a very strong advocate for organ donation. Going back 24 years, when I was 16 years old and I got my driver’s license. I can remember thinking if something was to happen to me, I would want to help someone in need. Since that day, organ donation has been a part of my life in several ways.
Twelve years later, my father suffered a heart attack and stroke that eventually lead to his death. Although they were unable to use his organs for transplant, my siblings and I were given the opportunity to donate my father’s body to science because of the need of cadavers to be used for medical advances.
In 2011 my mother-in-law had a massive stroke that took her life. Once the doctors had informed us that she had lost all brain function, we met with the Gift of Life team and the family made the decision to donate her organs. This gave us all comfort at a very devastating time.
About 4 years ago, my mom was tested to be a living kidney donor for a man that was born with one kidney and was suffering from kidney failure in his other. Thankfully my mom was a match and was able to donate one of her kidneys to him. That selfless act inspired me to want to do the same if I were ever in that situation. I actually tried to see if there was national database that I could be listed on, like the bone marrow registry that I had joined a few years before, but wasn’t ever able to find the information needed.
On April 14, 2016 I was going through my Facebook timeline and came across a flyer that had been shared by one of my friends. As soon as I saw it, I recognized that the person in the pictures was someone that I had been friends with over 20 years ago and she was in need. She had been battling a rare disease of the bile ducts in her liver known as PBC, Primary Biliary Cholangitis. For 10 years her medical team had been managing it through medications, but it came to the point where she was in need of a transplant and a living donor was her best chance.
Kelly and I had gone to the same high school, but it wasn’t until we both started working at the same place that we became friends. Shortly after she started working there, we were practically inseparable for about 2 years. Although we had lost contact throughout the years, I just knew that I had to be tested. Without any hesitation I called Northwestern Hospital. I live with my husband and children in York, PA; however, I was already planning on being in the Chicago area about 2 weeks from then, so they were able to schedule me to be tested while I was there. Two weeks after the testing was done, I got a call that confirmed I was a match.
After it was confirmed I was a match there were still a few things I had to do before they would clear me for surgery. I had to have a biopsy of my liver to test for a fatty liver and I had to lose 20 pounds. I went for the liver biopsy on July 5 and the tests showed that my liver was perfectly healthy. I then started the process of losing weight. By the end of September I had lost the 20 pounds, but I had to go back to Northwestern for another evaluation to ensure I was still healthy enough to go through surgery. That evaluation took place on October 13. When I received the call from the transplant coordinator that I had been cleared for surgery we set the date of surgery for November 30.
I was a ready to go in for my pre-op testing when we got a call that Kelly’s insurance was not going to cover a living donor. This was devastating news. It took about a week or two to get that straightened out, but by then it was too late for us to proceed with surgery on November 30. Our surgery was rescheduled for December 5, with pre-op testing to be done on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving.
On December 5, Kelly and I got to the pre-op holding area and started getting prepped for surgery when we find out that due to 4 emergency transplants over the weekend, they were unable to proceed that morning. Surgery was rescheduled, yet again, for 2 days later.
December 7 was the big day. Although we were anxious and excited, we had a hard time letting ourselves believe that it was finally happening. We got to the pre-op holding area and once we met with the surgeons, we were assured that we were going to proceed.
Both of our surgeries went well, with only a few small complications. I had some scar tissue they had to deal with from when I had my gallbladder removed 3 years prior and it took them a lot longer than anticipated to put the liver into Kelly, but neither of these things caused any lasting problems. Here is me with kiddos, post surgery.
Since I lived out of town, it was required that I stay in the Chicago area for approximately 2 weeks after surgery to ensure that I was healing properly. After being cleared to go home, I flew home on December 19. The next day I was in a considerable amount of pain that was not being relieved by taking Tylenol and I had been off prescription pain medication for 5 days, so I didn’t have anything stronger to take. Hesitantly I went to my local hospital to see if they could do something for the pain.
It was a good thing that I listened to my body and went to get medical attention, because it turned out that I had blood clots in both sides of my lungs. I was immediately admitted to the ICU to begin treatment. Shortly after starting the Heparin, a clot dislodged and went to my heart. This was the scariest feeling ever. I couldn’t breathe, I was sweating profusely and it hurt so badly. Luckily that didn’t happen again. Then, after doing a blood test they realized that my blood platelets had dropped to extremely low numbers. Typically when this happens after starting Heparin it is due to a condition called Heparin Induced Thrombocytopenia, or HITT. They stopped the heparin and tested me for Hitt, but the test came back negative, so they started the Heparin again. For about 3 days they could not figure out why my platelets were so low. On Christmas Day they decided that I needed to be transferred back to Northwestern to be treated by the transplant team.
After I arrived at Northwestern, they decided to retest me for HITT and this time it came back positive. Apparently I had been developing the condition as they were treating me with the Heparin. It took another 15 days in the hospital to get me off the Heparin and switch me to Coumadin.
I just finished my 3 month Coumadin treatment and have had a CT scan and ulatrasound that show that the clots have resolved. It was also determined at my three month post-op checkup that my liver function is back to 100%. I can resume all normal activities, including being able to drink alcohol, with the exception of donating blood – that will have to wait until December.
It is so amazing to look back at everything that has happened in the past year and to think that, I donated part of my liver and am back to normal already. Although we had some setbacks and I encountered such a huge complication, I would still do it again if I were able to. Knowing that I gave someone their life back and allowed them to look forward to a long, healthy life with her family is such a great feeling.
I hope that hearing this doesn’t scare anyone out of wanting to consider living organ donation. I tell my story to inform people of the possibilities of complications and how even if they happen, you do get through them.
Peace, Love and Recycle Yourself,
Rebecca is a living donor who lives in PA with her loving family. She donated a portion of her liver to a high school friend (Kelly Drey) December 2016 after becoming aware of Kelly’s need for a liver on Facebook! If you have any questions about living liver donation or anything Rebecca went through, please feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is a fantastic donor advocate with experience to share.