By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, COKATO, MN According to LifeSource, a nonprofit organ, eye, and tissue donation organization in Minneapolis, 22 people die while waiting for a transplant every day, with a new name being added to the list every 10 minutes.
To help bring awareness to how a person’s life can be changed through an organ transplant, the A to Z Mental Health Scholarship Foundation invited Teresa Turner of LifeSource to a forum June 10 to share some of the truths of organ donation, along with two speakers who have been on either side of the organ transplant process.
Sandi Hagglund of South Haven represented the organ donor’s side as she spoke about her daughter, Heidi Williams, 40, who accidently overdosed on morphine June 30, 2013.
When the EMTs found a pulse, Williams was immediately transported to Saint Cloud Hospital.
“Because she was divorced, it fell to me to make all the decisions,” explained Hagglund, whose husband was receiving hospice care at the time.
Williams was moved into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to determine brain functionality through “significant testing.” When a doctor checked Williams’ pupil reaction, however, Hagglund said she could tell her daughter was no longer with her.
“Her body was functioning, but her eyes were devoid of all life,” Hagglund stated. “During that week, she was monitored. They gave me a bit of time to make the call as I didn’t want to shut down the equipment July 4.” The decision to terminate was made July 5. Hagglund’s husband died nine days later.
It was during those last few days with Williams in the ICU that Hagglund learned through Williams’ drivers license that her daughter wanted to become an organ donor, for which Hagglund was grateful to know since organ donation was “not on her radar at the time.”
Hagglund was also thankful for the opportunity to share a few sentences about what Williams was like and what was important to her.
“The first step in the recovery surgeries was that these words were read to the surgical teams,” stated Hagglund. “I always thought that was so precious. They were treating her with such care, such value, such kindness. It touched my heart, truly touched my heart.”
A 34-year-old woman in California received one of William’s kidneys; a 69 year-old woman in California received the other kidney; a 66 year-old man in Oklahoma received her liver; and a 62 year-old man in Illinois received her heart. Since tissue can be stored up to five years, it was anticipated that Williams’ donations could help up to 60 people through tissue implantation and research.
Hagglund has since received a letter from the heart recipient who spoke of what he will now be able to do with his sons; and a tissue recipient who was now looking forward to having tea parties with her grandchildren.
“As time went by, [Williams’] action did become more of a signal of hope to me; a bit of comfort in the healing process,” said Hagglund. “I will say, though, when I did receive a letter from her heart recipient, I was confronted with a myriad of emotions. Anger. Unfairness. All of those thoughts about how someone else could be alive when my daughter was not. So, I had my little pity party for a half-hour or so, and then began the prayers of gratitude that someone else was able to carry on in their life.
That acknowledgement, that acceptance was so very releasing. I am not saying it made it any easier at the time, but it helps the healing.”
When considering the concept of organ donation as a whole, Hagglund described it as being a double-edged sword.
She said, “On one hand, there is deep sorrow, deep grief, tinged with a ray of hope in helping someone else. On the other hand, there is great joy and anticipation, tinged with the knowledge that someone somewhere died to provide the lifesaving gift being received. But, having recently listened to the personal story of a recipient, I was touched and moved by the great glory and hope that is organ donation.”
DC alumnus gets a kidney
While to a donor’s loved ones, it may sometimes feel like the story ended at the funeral, the life of the organ recipients is given the chance for a new chapter.
Dassel-Cokato High School alumnus Amy Paulson is one of those people whose life was changed through a kidney she received from her brother, and from a donor she never met.
Paulson’s first indication she has kidney problems occurred in 1992, when protein started showing up in her urine. This issue continued for three years until a trip to the doctor for shortness of breath had her diagnosed with complete kidney failure.
“I started dialysis pretty much immediately,” she said, which is a clinical process that substitutes the kidneys’ function of filtering and purifying the blood of unwanted water and waste.
Paulson’s treatments were hermodialysis, which is when an access is made in the arms or legs or through a chest catheter. These occurred three days a week in three-hour sessions.
Upon learning about Paulson’s condition, her brother, Randy Youngkrantz immediately told her, “I’m giving you a kidney,” which became true by November of that year.
“[Randy] is one of the many people in our community that has been a living organ donor,” Paulson stated. “Heroes are all around us. Because of Randy, I had five wonderful dialysis-free years.”
In November 2000, however, the transplanted kidney failed, and Paulson had to begin her three-times-a-week dialysis treatments again. Youngkrantz is still “doing great” and has experienced no side effects from his donation.
While Paulson is grateful dialysis preserved her life, she admitted it is very hard on a person’s body and mental health.
“I had numerous health problems and pretty much continually battled with and was treated for depression,” she commented. “More than a few times, I thought about just giving up.”
Hermodialysis was a regular part of Paulson’s life for more than 12 years until 2013, when her chest catheter access stopped working and no other access was usable.
“They had previously tried putting [a catheter] in my leg, [but] that didn’t work and both of my arms were no longer usable,” Paulson explained. “Things were starting to get more scary.”
Things started to look brighter when she received a call that a kidney was available that spring. When she was admitted into Mayo Clinic, however, she learned she had recently had a “bad pap smear,” which required a complete hysterectomy. After the procedure, she was back on the waiting list.
“I kept my phone on me at all times,” Paulson said. The awaited call finally came July 18, when a doctor from Mayo Clinic informed her a kidney might soon be available.
“Have you ever been waiting for an important phone call?” Paulson asked. “The time just drags. Imagine waiting for a phone call that will ultimately save your life.”
She continued, “I remember [my fiancé] Jeff and I discussing the fact that if they were calling, that meant there was someone out there whose life was soon ending, and I felt like mine was about to get better. We said many prayers for this unknown person and their family. And we always have kept my donor and family in our minds and prayers.”
Paulson was officially offered the kidney the following morning, which she instantly accepted. The transplant took place later that day, and within a few weeks, the kidney was functioning the way it was supposed to. She named her new kidney, “Beans.”
“With Beans, my life-saving kidney, I got to attend my son’s wedding. I went back to work for a few years. I felt so good,” said Paulson, who now spends her time traveling and taking care of her recently-born granddaughter, Avery.
Paulson recently received a letter from her donor’s daughter, Crystal, and was able to participate in the Twin Cities Heart Walk alongside Sherrie’s friends and relatives. The woman who received the donor’s heart and other kidney also attended the walk.
Through these interactions, Paulson learned that her donor, Sherrie, 44 (the same age Paulson is now), died from a stroke July 17, 2013. It also turned out that Sherrie had only lived five miles away from Paulson.
The kidney is now functioning at 16 percent and she is back on the transplant waiting list. To stay up-to-date with Paulson’s battle against chronic kidney disease, visit her Kidney for Amy facebook page.
“I hope my story helps people to sign up to be an organ donor,” Paulson added. “It can change the life of someone or many people.”