Giving so others can live

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FLEMING ISLAND – Shirley Thompson found herself suddenly out of breath.

She went to the doctor and, eventually, was diagnosed with Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. She had high blood pressure in her lungs and the condition progressed until she needed oxygen 24 hours a day.

This was a burden, but she could manage. Breathing was a struggle, but, being a strong-willed woman, it was nothing she couldn’t power through. Then, due to the condition, she discovered that she would need an emergency hysterectomy.

This is a common procedure among women, usually causing little to no problems, but with Thompson’s PAH, the anesthesia was more than her body could handle and her organs shut down during the surgery. Her lungs could not be salvaged and suddenly she needed a double lung transplant.

Thompson was placed in a medically-induced coma until doctors could figure out how to proceed.

“They said I wouldn’t find a match in time,” Shirley said. “The doctors said I wouldn’t make it.”

Shirley’s husband Rob was there, waiting for his wife to get out of a routine surgery, when doctors told him he had better go into the room to see Shirley.

“They said their worst fears had come true,” Rob said. “They called us in to say our goodbyes. I can’t tell you how much crying we did in that hospital.”

This was when, four rooms down from where Shirley was staying, a woman who had come in following a brain aneurysm and had passed away. Her blood type was a match, and the lungs were slightly large, but could be trimmed down. Shirley had a match, and the doctors opened her up to replace her lungs.

During the transplant surgery, Shirley’s heart collapsed, necessitating an emergency open heart surgery. Then the lungs were swollen and doctors had to leave her chest open for about a week until some of the swelling had reduced. Then, finally, she was on the path to healing – doctors put her back together.

“When I woke up I was thinking I had been in for an overnight hysterectomy,” Shirley said. “Instead I had muscle apathy from being put in the coma. I learned how to walk, talk, eat, everything, all over again. That was the hardest part for me.”

For about a year after a transplant the patient lives at the hospital.

“We’re going on five years now,” Rob said. “She has moments, where she’s in a lot of pain, but it sure beats the alternative. [The lung transplant] added five years of life that without it she would not have had.”

Stories like this affect families all across the country, where the simple fact that someone was an organ donor gave them time with a loved one that they would not have had otherwise.

“Not in a million years would I have thought this would happen to me,” Shirley said. “I’ve never gotten back to one-hundred percent, but I’m here. Donation gives the family a chance to share more memories. Some things we take for granted.”

Last month, Orange Park Medical Center held an event to honor Donate Life Month, a national campaign to bring attention to organ donation and sharing stories like Shirley’s that help people realize what a simple and selfless act it is to register as a donor.

“For recipients, donation can turn sickness and injury into a second chance at life,” said Sarah Miller, injury prevention coordinator in the trauma department at OPMC. “For donors, their decision to register can turn a sorrowful time into a source of comfort for a family as a result of renewed life for others.”

OPMC placed 23 pinwheels on display, each representing someone who was given a second chance at life through organ donation at their facility in 2016.

“There are three hearts continuing to beat, and one person who is taking a breath right now because of this facility,” said Vince Alderson of LifeQuest Florida.

For more information on registering as a donor, visit donatelifeflorida.org.

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