“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.”


“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.”


Because Democracy Lives, So Does Charles

April 14, 2014

Charles Kittles with Gift of Hope CEO Kevin Cmunt receiving a Lifesaving Partners award.

Charles Kittles with Gift of Hope CEO Kevin Cmunt receiving a Lifesaving Partners award.

Gift of Hope Advocates for Hope volunteer Charles Kittles might consider donating his body — minus its viable organs and tissue, of course — to medical science someday. That’s because this 73-year-old retiree, who was released from Loyola University Medical Center with his life-renewing kidney transplant on New Year’s Day 2006, is nothing short of a scientific miracle.

On top of the diabetes and high blood pressure Charles believes caused his kidneys to fail, from 2000 through 2005 he underwent neck surgery, received treatment for prostate cancer, had a cancerous kidney removed, had a three-month nursing home stay and suffered an infection that necessitated the removal of his colon. Yet Charles, a member of Gift of Hope’s African-American Task Force, remains remarkably upbeat and enthusiastic while spreading the good news of organ and tissue donation.

“My doctor used to tell me, ‘You don’t understand that you’re sick,’” Charles recalls. “Well, I never considered myself as sick through any of this. I was just in the shape I was in. You know, we all deal with things in different ways.”

His four children were tested as potential kidney donors. A long-distance blood sample revealed that his daughter, Peggy Jacobs, who­ lives in California, was an ideal match. “There was no discussion,” Charles says, laughing. “This all took place during the time my colon was being removed, and I was in a coma in the hospital. I knew nothing about any of this.”

Charles was concerned about his daughter. “But she told me, ‘You remember when we used to talk around the dinner table, and you always stressed that we live in a democracy and the majority rules? Well, we outvoted you! You have to accept this!’ The best part was that we were in the same room together at Loyola.”

Charles became involved with Gift of Hope after speaking at Loyola’s annual candlelight ceremony in 2006. “Prior to my transplant, I had no idea this world existed,” he says. “Volunteering has given me the opportunity to meet so many truly caring and dedicated people.” While he says he rarely tells his own story anymore — “Truth be told, it gets boring after a while.” — he shares an important message of prevention.

“When you’re told something is wrong with you and your doctor gives you a plan, follow the plan, period,” says Charles. “Don’t groan and moan about it. If you’re told, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that,’ then don’t do that.”


Master of the Second Act

April 4, 2014

Brian Brandt knows a thing or two about reinventing oneself. After a successful career in marketing and advertising that included stops at Marshall Field’s, Rust-Oleum Corporation and legendary Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett, he left the business world in 1993 to become a vocational teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system.

“Everybody in my family was very supportive,” Brian says, “and, fortunately, I could afford the career move. But I saw the good, the bad and the ugly — often in the same day.”

Brian prior to transplant.

Brian prior to transplant.

Perhaps nothing was uglier than another life-changing decision he made eight years ago, though, when his family doctor determined he was suffering from ascites (eh-SITE-ees), a condition where fluid accumulates in the abdominal cavity because the liver is malfunctioning. “He suggested having my esophagus scoped to see if pressure was building in my veins,” Brian recalls. “I just thought I was getting fat or something. I ignored his advice, and life went on.”

Sort of. Until the day he passed out at home. “A vein ruptured in my esophagus,” Brian explains. “I could have bled to death, but my daughter called the paramedics, and doctors were able to seal off the vein below the rupture.”

That time, Brian got the message: He had a severe liver problem.

As his ascites worsened and his liver continued deteriorating, Brian was having six to eight liters of fluid removed from his midsection twice a week. “I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoes,” he says.

Then fate intervened.

In early 2011, a friend from Brian’s church visited him at home, observed his condition and put him in touch with an acquaintance connected with the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. The acquaintance invited Brian to meet the members of the UW transplant team. “I’ll never forget the words they said: ‘You are now part of our family.’”

The Brandt family after Brian's transplant.

The Brandt family after Brian’s transplant.

Brian was added to the transplant waiting list in late spring 2011 and, after what he describes as a “dreadful” summer physically, in August he received another opportunity for a major life change — a matching liver was found.

“My transplant took place on August 12, 2011,” says Brian, now retired and an enthusiastic advocate for organ donation. “Aside from my birthday, it’s the most important day of my life.

After his transplant, Brian considered himself to be the luckiest guy in the world. “Today I say, ‘Well, I may not be the luckiest guy, but I still feel like I’m nationally ranked!’”


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