“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.”


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.”


Gift of Life Unites Rivals

April 24, 2014
The Ehrenberg family

The Ehrenberg family

Terri Guzman is an Advocate for Hope volunteer with Gift of Hope because of the loss of her good friend, Jan Ehrenberg, 15 years ago. “Jan was a teacher, mother, daughter, sister and friend to so many,” Terri explains. And she was an ardent Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, she met her husband at Wrigley Field. But most important, Jan was an organ and tissue donor.

On April 11, 1999, Jan suffered a fatal head injury while playing a game of co-ed basketball. “She fought valiantly for four days, but on April 14th the doctors knew she was not going to recover,” Terri says. That’s when Vince, Jan’s husband, said “yes” to the question of organ and tissue donation. “Please know that telling your family that you want to be an organ donor is showing your generosity to them,” Terri says. “You can give comfort to your family that even in your passing you live on.”

After Jan’s death, her friends and family established the Jan Ehrenberg Scholarship Foundation (JESF) to continue Jan’s legacy as a teacher. Raising funds brought Terri to an event where Chicago White Sox players were signing autographs. “I am a true-blue Cubs fan, just as Jan was, so this was a stretch for me,” Terri says. But she had a baseball to be signed for the benefit, so she stood in line holding some brochures for JESF.

Jan and her kids

Jan and her kids

That’s when she met Mike Papineau, who asked about the brochures. Terri told Mike about Jan, and Mike told Terri about his kidney transplant. They shared the information they knew about dates and donor/recipient details. “We both knew right there what had happened,” Terri says. “I had randomly met my friend’s kidney recipient.”

Mike’s family and Jan’s family met a few weeks later — a group of die-hard Cubs and White Sox fans together at a barbeque. “They joked about the irony of the Cubs/Sox connection,” Terri recalls. Later they made a friendly wager: If the Cubs won the cross-town series, Mike would wear a Cubs hat at the JESF Golf Outing, and, if the Sox won, Terri would wear a Sox hat. The Cubs won.

In 2005, after five years of Cubs outings, JESF decided to do a Sox game instead. “Mike brought lots of friends,” Terri says. And strangely, later that year, the Sox won the World Series. “I think Jan had something to do with that,’ Terri says.


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.”


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