Please note: This story was originally published on May 27th, 2015.
Written By: Carissa Haston, Transplant Recipient
It was about midnight on March 12, 2006 when my life changed forever: I was at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center awaiting a life saving transplant. Earlier that day I had been admitted with fluctuating blood pressure and I was a scrawny 62 pounds. I had days, if not just hours, left to live.
Due to gastroparesis and chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, two gastrointestinal conditions which lead to paralysis of the GI tract, I had not eaten in 12 years. I relied on nutrition through IV lines (something known as TPN), but with so many near-fatal blood infections from the central lines, I had lost most of my veins and they were losing the ability to feed me anymore. As a complication of TPN, my liver was failing.
For 13 months I had waited for a transplant of my stomach, small bowel, pancreas, liver, and duodenum.
Photo: Carissa's Outlive Yourself Pledge is to "advocate for cures for others!" How will you #outliveyourself?
Waiting and Hoping
During my long wait, I experienced many setbacks and came close to death on many occasions. While I needed to be as healthy as possible for the transplant, I kept developing problems that decreased my chances of making it out of the OR or being able to recover. When things looked their bleakest, doctors walked into my hospital room to inform me that organs had finally become available. After three previous false alarms, I was skeptical and tried to keep my hopes from getting too high this time. The organs looked like a perfect match but I had become so weak during the long wait that my doctor was hesitant to even operate. He did not think I would make it out of the OR, but also realized that this may be my last chance. We moved forward, hopefully.
The long-anticipated, 17 hour life saving operation was started around 8:30 AM on March 13, 2006. Not only did I survive the operation, but I recovered amazingly well. My family told me that they could tell my body was so much better as soon as I was wheeled into the transplant ICU. My face had color. My fingernails looked healthier. My body was working again, and very quickly. Just hours before the surgery, my odds of survival were slim. While still facing the potential of rejection, bleeds, infections, and other serious complications, I had beaten the odds and exceeded expectations simply by surviving the transplant operation. In less than one year I went from being bedbound, unable to drive, walk well, or care for myself... to being fully independent.
About nine months later, I was driving and lived in Pittsburgh alone for five months for follow up care. About a year and a half later, I returned to my work as voluntary CEO of the non-profit I founded in 2001 for gastroparesis, G-PACT, and began volunteering at my church four days a week. I was able to return to normal social life activities. While I still battle complications from 21 years of illness and additional health conditions including mitochondrial disease (a genetic condition), dysautonomia, osteoporosis, myelin sheath loss in my brain, and low vision of unknown cause, I have lived nine years longer than anyone expected and as a result have been able to do so many things I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience. It has been especially wonderful to continue to witness the growth and impact that G-PACT is making in the world of paralytic conditions of the GI tract and I've seen so many lives changed through our work.
The Importance and Impact of Being an Organ Donor
Every April is National Donate Life Month, but the importance and impact surrounding organ donation is always something to be shared. Even as a transplant recipient of five organs, I can't fully express the importance of being an organ donor. There is such an increasing need for organs - over 123,000 people - and such a shortage of organ donors that, as a result, so many people don't live to share their story.
Something that is especially hard to talk about is something that Taylor's family experienced first hand. Parents are never prepared for the tragic loss of a child, and I can't imagine what it must be like to be approached with the question, "Your child is a beautiful candidate for organ donation, would you consider it?" But as Taylor's and the stories of so many others show, there is so much possibility and hope that comes from that one simple decision... and my story is one of many that is a testimony to it.
Because of my small size, I actually needed organs from a child - which is one reason it took so long for mine to become available. No one in need of an organ transplant wants anyone else to have to die in order for them to live - it's a very emotional struggle for recipients. While we are grateful for the second chance, we mourn for the families of those who have suffered a major loss. We cherish the incredible gift of life and are so grateful for the unselfish act of giving during a time of great mourning.
I encourage everyone to register to become an organ donor and help save more lives. I encourage parents to consider this too if they experience the loss of their child. The need is so great. If not for my donor family on that night, I would not be here writing this today and not able to use my extra years to impact many lives. One donor can save up to seven lives, and change many others through tissue donation. Recipients can then move on and impact the lives of hundreds or thousands. The cycle continues. Please check out www.unos.com for more information. More information on G-PACT and Digestive Tract Paralysis can be accessed at www.g-pact.org and www.facebook.com/gpact.org.