Alice Campbell Havre Daily News email@example.com
Every day, 18 people in the United States die because they didn't receive an organ transplant that they needed. More than 100,000 people 1,600 in the Northwest need transplants. Ruth Lass had to move to Wisconsin to receive a double organ transplant 13 years ago. "I didn't have much choice," she said. Her husband and two children remained in Havre to avoid uprooting their lives. Even though Lass' sister lived near enough to Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, located in Milwaukee, Wis., "It was just very difficult," she said. Through the move and the months to come, Lass’ faith, family and friends sustained her. “You just have to have faith,” she said At Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, transplant patients from Montana are not uncommon, said Dr. Christian Kuhr, who grew up in Havre and is now the director of transplantation at the center. Because a patient in Montana can fly or drive relatively quickly to Seattle, moving to wait for transplants is generally not necessary now. The same goes for the hospital’s other patients from Idaho, Alaska, Washington state and occasionally Oregon, Kuhr said. Quick transportation to a hospital after receiving notification that organs are available is crucial, though the window for kidney transplants is 24 hours, liver and pancreas is 12 hours, and heart and lungs is roughly 6sixhours. After her kidneys failed and she went on dialysis in late-September 1995, Lass, who has been diabetic since the age of 11, was given the options to receive only a kidney transplant with a 95 percent success rate or to receive a kidney and pancreas transplant with an 85 percent success rate. "I thought for 10 percent, I'd go for both," Lass said. Waiting for the organs was an uncertain time for Lass. "I knew I would get both," she said and added, "But you never know if they'll have the right organs for you." She remained optimistic though, and after being on the transplant waiting list since late October 1995, Lass received a call that a kidney and a pancreas had been found on April 6, 1996. "(My sister) drove me to the hospital, and then that was it," she said. She was calm enough after the call to think about "all the things I had to do before I got to the hospital." Lass was also "sad because someone suffered a loss” in order for her to receive the call. Before surgery “I sent my family home and told them to get some sleep,” Lass said. She was under from roughly 6 p. m. to “sometime after midnight” when she woke up due to a nicked artery the surgery took longer than expected. Most transplants have a 90 percent success rate now, Kuhr said. He added that double transplants can have a slightly lower success rate because “if you have two organ systems that have failed, it suggests that you are significantly sicker,” which raises the risk of complications. Reunited with her family in Havre about two months after her surgery, Lass was glad to be home. In addition, “The one thing I was really grateful for was not having to have insulin shots every day and checking my blood sugar all day,” she said. Most patients have spent so long coping with kidney and pancreas problems before transplants that they “forget what it was like not to have kidney disease,” Kuhr said. But after the transplants, they are “no longer diabetic and no longer in kidney failure,” he added. Kuhr said that the fight to keep the transplants healthy is eventually a losing one. “We still can’t keep the body from ultimately winning the battle and rejecting the organ,” he said even though immunosuppressive medications help. Lass’ new kidney and pancreas function normally still, and while she said other people tend to think she should feel odd about having another person’s organs inside of her, “I don’t feel any differently.” “Everything I do, I try to take care of these organs,” Lass said, especially because of the loss of another family that gave her the gift. If the deceased was not registered, “it is a very difficult decision to make at that time, when you’re going through a crisis situation,” she said. “I wrote (my donor family) a letter once, and I never heard anything back. I’m contemplating writing again,” Lass said and added that she doesn’t blame the family for never responding. “It’s very difficult to write that letter,” Lass said, but in the letter she wrote the donor family she “thanked them for their willingness to help others” and told them that she was “looking forward to a future again with my children and husband, and it was because of them.” A family in need Toby Flathers, who grew up in Havre, just began his life with his wife in August and found out in December that he needs a kidney transplant. A man who has given his life to serving others through his church in Kansas City, Mo., Flathers now needs help to pay the medical bills that have been accumulating and for the pending transplant, his sister Sarah Flathers said. “The state will pay for some of, but not all of it. They said 80 percent, but that’s still a lot of money we have to come up with,” Sarah said. And for a man who doesn’t have insurance, it will be hard to make up that 20 percent difference as well as pay previous and post-surgery medical bills and everyday living bills. Costs vary from patient to patient, but a transplant surgery is about the same cost as 18 months to two years of dialysis, Kuhr said. Flathers’ father, Tim, also underwent a kidney transplant when Flathers was still a young boy. Tim’s brother, Bruce Flathers, gave one of his kidneys. Sarah said that either she or her sister, Torey, are likely matches for Flathers. “It’s scary, definitely,” said Sarah, who is only 17. “It’s a lot to think about. Of course, I would do it in a heartbeat if I matched,” she added. Flathers decided to pursue a life serving others through his church rather than pursuing a lucrative profession. “He was really smart. He put that all aside so that he could help other people,” Sarah said. He even came home to help his family when Sarah herself was sick a few years ago. “It’s my time to help give back to him,” Sarah said. Kuhr said that living donor transplants have a longer lifetime 15 to 17 years than transplants from deceased donors 10 to 12 years. The strong family tie the Flathers family shares helped them persevere through all the troubles that they have endured. “We’ve been very close as a family because of this,” Sarah said and added that “no matter what differences a family has, in a time of crisis is when all of those are set aside.” To help offset some of Flathers’ medical costs, Sarah and Torey have set up a fund in Flathers’ name at Yellowstone Bank, P.O. Box 7, Laurel, MT 59044. Some donations have been made already, but Sarah said they could use more. Flathers doesn’t know about his family’s efforts to help here in Montana, and Sarah said they hope to surprise him and his wife with a trip home in a few weeks to lift his spirits and present him with donations. While the next few months play out, the family will continue to “try and stay positive,” Sarah said. A family’s prayers answered The Barber family went through a similar waiting process to what Lass did. Suffering from cystic fibrosis since he was a young boy, Brent Barber finally underwent a double lung transplant on Jan. 31, 2008, just in the nick of time. “It was just really weird his wife called me the 27th of January and said that he wasn’t doing well at all and that I needed to get out there,” Brent’s mother Bettie Barber said. Then, on Jan. 31, the call came through that lungs were ready for Brent. “God is really huge in my life, and prayers have been the sustaining force, and it was just the answer to what we’d been praying for for 36 years,” Barber, who lives in the Bear’s Paws Mountains, said. It was hard for Barber to watch “Brent grow up and his health decline and knowing that it would come to the point that the transplant would be the only hope for living, and that (the transplant) depends on people being willing to give something that’s really hard,” she said. “To make the decision to give organs might be really hard for some people, but it’s a gift that there’s just no way to thank you for,” she added. “It’s just amazing, really amazing.” Ruth Lass agrees. “It’s all because of (donors) that we’re able to get these wonderful gifts,” she said. Sobering statistics “(Virginia Mason Medical Center’s) list has about 180 patients who are actively waiting as we speak now,” Kuhr said Wednesday. Those on the list receive organs based on primarily how long they’ve been listed. Patients “move up as people ahead receive transplants,” Kuhr said. But the demand far outstrips the supply. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network's Web site, kidneys are the organ in the highest demand with 79,300 people waiting. The wait for a kidney averages three to five years, Kuhr said. 15,820 people need liver transplants, 3,792 need either a pancreas or a kidney and a pancreas together, 2,774 people need a new heart, 1,945 are waiting for lungs 85 people need both a heart an lung and 215 people need a small intestine transplant. In order to donate organs, registered or not, a person must have functioning organs, can’t die from cancer or infection and must die in a hospital, Kuhr said and added that that rules out most people. “Organ donation is a way for something positive to come of a tragedy,” Kathy Labaty, the director of emergency room and intensive care unit services at Northern Montana Hospital said in a press release from the hospital. To register as a donor, visit www. DonateLifeToday.com or call (877) 275-529. For more information, visit www. Nwts.org, www.lcnw.org, www.organdonor. gov or http://optn.transplant.hrsa. gov or call the Havre office of motor vehicle services at 265-3356.