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How to Save a Life Through Organ Donation

  • Marlay Manopaseuth (left) and Marlee Phomsopha

    Peter Taylor

    A Sister’s Love

    If a small, thoughtful gesture like a smile can transform your day, imagine what a major act of kindness could do for the decades ahead. Nearly 6,000 people nationwide became living organ donors last year—each of them enduring an unnecessary surgery to give a friend, family member or complete stranger the opportunity to live a longer life. 

    Nine years ago Marlee Phomsopha drove herself to a local urgent care clinic with aches and chills, expecting to walk out with a prescription for antibiotics. Instead, the pediatric dental assistant was shocked to discover days later that she was in kidney failure. A biopsy determined that Marlee was suffering from Berger’s disease (also known as IgA nephropathy), an autoimmune kidney illness. Within a few months, she was put on dialysis.

    "We didn’t need to ask anyone else to get tested. I knew it had to be me.”—Marlay

    Receiving a donor kidney was her best option. However, there are nearly 97,000 patients in need of a kidney transplant, and the average wait is three to five years. Luckily, and without hesitation, Marlee’s twin sister, Marlay Manopaseuth, stepped in. “Once the specialist referred us to the transplant center, we didn’t need to ask anyone else to get tested. I knew it had to be me,” says Marlay. “I work as a nurse and even I didn’t know that much about organ transplants. So along with our parents, we learned as a family.”

    After a thorough medical evaluation and a series of blood, genetic and psychological tests, Marlay was deemed a perfect match. The doctors also determined Berger’s disease was unlikely to replicate in her. “They said it could have been something Marlee was exposed to in the environment,” explains Marlay. “But there has never been a real answer as to why she got this and I didn’t.”

    Two days before their 26th birthday, Marlay’s kidney was transplanted. (The laparoscopic procedure involves small incisions made in the abdomen so that a tiny camera can guide the removal.) After three days, Marlay was released from the hospital.

    It’s been nine years since Marlay donated to her twin, and she hasn’t had any medical problems. Still, the experience changed her. For the past three years Marlay, 35, has worked as the renal transplant coordinator at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, advising patients suffering from kidney disease who are about to begin the transplant process. “I came back to work after surgery with a new purpose,” says the mother of two. “It’s really important for people who need a kidney to share their stories so that others can help. My sister and I are thankful for what we have now more than ever.”

  • Vicki (left) and Pearl Lambert

    Ryan Donnell

    A Daughter’s Decision

    In the fall of 2000, Vicki Lambert thought her life was on track. She had just landed a great new job as a special education teacher in Virginia and was busy navigating her second year in the classroom while taking classes herself to maintain her certification. Then, after a routine physical, Vicki’s mother, Pearl, learned that the enzyme levels in her liver were dangerously low. A specialist diagnosed Pearl with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare chronic inflammatory disease that can lead to liver failure.

    “The doctor said she would survive only another year or two without a new liver,” explains Vicki, who began to witness her once vibrant mother deteriorate before her eyes. “She was tired all the time, her skin changed color and she went from a size 14 to a size 4,” Vicki says

    Pearl was added to the national transplant waiting list (it currently has more than 14,000 people in need of a liver), and her doctors at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital discussed with Vicki her mother’s options. The best one involved Vicki donating a piece of her liver. (It takes about two months for the liver to regenerate back to full size after surgery.) “At first, I thought that since I was overweight and had suffered from depression, I wouldn’t qualify,” says Vicki. “But the hospital gave me some material to read and I started doing my own research. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this isn’t so bad. Maybe I could be her donor.’ ” Once Vicki passed the medical and psychological evaluation, mother and daughter were scheduled for surgery in December 2002. One week later they left the hospital together.

    At 67, Pearl (who also had a kidney transplant in 2013) is feeling better than ever and is grateful for the time she has been afforded to spend with her family, including her 9-year-old granddaughter, Joy. This year Vicki, who is 46 and now works as a health care enrollment specialist and public speaker, teamed up with her mom to self-publish their book, Pushing On. It details their journey to help others who are compelled to become living organ donors.

    “People tell me I’m such a beautiful person to do what I did for my mom, but I’m no hero,” says Vicki. “When she was in pain, I was in pain, and all I could think about was how I could help. This was a way for me to take care of her for once.”

  • Sarah Lindberg

    Ackerman + Gruber

    Strangers for a Year

    Growing up in a small rural community in Irwin, IA, Sarah Lindberg learned from her mother and father to be a conscious giver. Whether by helping a neighbor harvest his land or providing a pan of lasagna for new parents, her family has always given back. That’s why she didn’t think twice about signing up for the Be the Match Registry, the world’s largest marrow registry, at a drive during her first year at Simpson College.

    Every three minutes someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and a bone marrow transplant is typically a life-saving cure. Doctors use the Be the Match Registry to find donors with protein markers similar to their patients. Once approved, the donor can give either peripheral blood stem cells or bone marrow.

    It was five years before Sarah received a voicemail saying she was a match but needed to do more testing. By then she had already graduated from college and was attending a seminary while working as a youth minister. Even with her busy schedule, she never questioned her decision. “Knowing the recipient was a person my age put this in perspective for me,” says Sarah, 31. “It could have been one of my friends or even me who needed that donation.”

    In September 2009 Sarah arrived at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, for her procedure. Under general anesthesia, doctors used a large needle to harvest bone marrow from her pelvic bones. She headed home the next day and after resting that weekend, she returned to classes and work on Monday.

    “Spending a night in the hospital and taking a few days off was a small effort compared with the big result of keeping someone alive.”—Sarah

    Fifteen months later, Sarah came face to face with her recipient. (Some transplant centers only allow donors and recipients to share contact information after a year.) She met Chris Music, 31, who had been battling leukemia, and found out he is now cancer-free thanks to her. He is married, with a 3-year old son. “My donation enhanced not just Chris’ life but the lives of his parents, siblings and wife,” says Sarah. “Spending a night in the hospital and taking a few days off was a small effort compared with the big result of keeping someone alive.”

  • Melissa Robinson

    Henrik Olund

    That Is What Friends Are For

    For over a decade, Melissa Robinson, 45, and her friend Trixie Dunning, 44, have been tight. Their kids raced on the same track team, both their families attended Amazing Church in McKinney, TX, and they even got tattoos together. When in 2012 Trixie’s husband, Dewayne, 50, started losing a noticeable amount of weight, Melissa pulled her friend aside to find out what was going on. “I knew he was diabetic,” says Melissa, an office manager, “but then Trixie revealed that Dewayne had started dialysis and was on the kidney transplant wait list.”

    A few members of their congregation were tested to be kidney donors, but it was Melissa who made it past the first two rounds. The doctors believed she would be healthy enough to live on one kidney, and she had a compatible blood type. “Just seeing Dewayne’s health decline and knowing there might be something I could do to help him made me willing,” she says.

    With the full support of her husband, Michael, and their three kids, Melissa proceeded to undergo physical and psychological examinations and listened to testimonials from other living donors before a transplant coordinator called to say she’d passed the final round.

    After her kidney was removed laparoscopically at UT Southwestern Medical Center in October 2014, Melissa was stable enough to walk over to Dewayne’s room. The process was not as difficult or scary as people think, says Melissa, who adds that Dewayne’s transformation was instantaneous. “Yes, you are donating your kidney,” she says. “But looking at the bigger picture helps you see that it’s all worth it.”

    "[It's] what I would have wanted someone to do for me if I were in his situation."—Melissa

    Becoming a donor also made Melissa, a hands-on grandmother of three, more aware of her own health and well-being. She now works out three to five days a week and watches what she eats. “Whenever I see Dewayne, he always gives me a big hug,” says Melissa. “It reminds me of what I would have wanted someone to do for me if I were in his situation. It’s what we as human beings are supposed to do for one another.”

    For more information on becoming a living donor, contact transplant programs in your area or visit the United Network for Organ Sharing at unos.org.

  • CPR model, booklet and tape

    4 Ways to Be a Hero

     

    CPR

    Approximately 350,000 people collapse from cardiac arrest in the U.S. every year, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation can be the difference between life and death. Pushing the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute (sing along to “Stayin’ Alive” while you do it) willallow blood to circulate until emergency services arrives. To find detailed instructions or a class near you, go to redcross.org and click “Training & Certification.”

    Heimlich Maneuver

    Choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S. To perform the Heimlich maneuver, stand behind the victim, reach around their abdomen and thrust inward and upward until the object lodged in their throat is expelled. Find detailed videos here.

    EpiPen

    During a severe allergy attack, a correctly administered injection of life-saving epinephrine (adrenaline) can decrease reactions and provide quick relief. Read instructions or watch online videos (epipen.com) to make sure you understand how to remove the protective cap, forcefully jab the opposite end of the injector (which has the needle) into the outer thigh and hold for three seconds.

    Blood/Platelet Donation

    Every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs a blood donation, including accident victims, people facing complicated surgeries, cancer patients and those with blood disorders. Go to aabb.org and click “Give Blood” to find a local donation center. —WLW

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