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Organ Donations: The Gift of New Life
By Mary Jo Dangel
Nine years after a double-lung transplant, Anne Hambrick still prays for Jamie Michelle, the deceased woman whose lungs now help her breathe.
Q U I C K S C A N

PHOTO BY JOE SIMON

LAST SEPTEMBER, on the ninth anniversary of her double-lung transplant, Anne Ritter Hambrick excitedly talked about the important celebration she was planning to mark the 10th anniversary of the surgery that extended her life. Although she will turn 50 in March 2009, Anne says, “I would rather celebrate 10 years of my new lungs. I would like to honor everybody who has helped us.”

Anne’s lungs were destroyed by cystic fibrosis (CF), an incurable hereditary disease (www.cff.org). Typically, people with CF cough frequently because of the thick mucus their bodies produce, which leads to pulmonary problems. Many are underweight, due to digestive problems.

Indeed, Anne has good reasons to celebrate. The majority of people who are born with CF do not reach the age of 50. And only 50.3 percent of double-lung transplant recipients are alive five years after surgery, according to statistics from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

April has been designated National Donate Life Month to increase awareness of the importance of organ and tissue donations, and to thank the thousands of unsung heroes who have given the gift of life to Anne and other transplant recipients.

The United Network of Organ Sharing (www.unos.org) constantly updates the numbers. Last January, 97,916 people were on the national waiting list for organ transplants. From January to July 2007, there were 19,249 transplants from 9,759 donors. Obviously, many of those people who are waiting will die before transplantation, due to the critical shortage of donors.

In the dining room of their one-story home in Cincinnati, Ohio, Anne and her husband, Walt, 50, describe for St. Anthony Messenger the support they have received from family, friends, parishioners, strangers and their Catholic faith. They are especially thankful to the family of the deceased young woman whose healthy lungs continue to give Anne the opportunity to breathe easier and live longer.

Diane Lux, who became friends with Anne about 20 years ago when they were teaching at the same school, recalls the first thing she noticed about Anne: her smile.

Indeed, Anne smiles throughout this interview. But she doesn’t cough frequently, as she did before her lung transplant. That’s because her transplanted lungs don’t have CF, as does the rest of her body.

Thus, Anne no longer needs medications or treatments for pulmonary problems related to CF. But she still takes medication for digestive problems linked to CF. Typical of many CF patients, Anne has become diabetic and requires insulin. And since her lung transplant, Anne needs to take anti-rejection medications.

One of the big reasons she is thankful to be alive is to teach her “kids.” Anne, who has a “passion for math,” teaches part-time at two elementary schools: Our Lady of Victory and Sacred Heart. “I love teaching and I love children,” she says.

Diane boasts about a recent award Anne received: Ohio Outstanding Mathematics Teacher Award for the Southwest District from the Ohio Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Anne serves as the organization’s vice president for the elementary division.

Although Anne is grateful to be alive, she remains saddened that it’s because Jamie Michelle, a 19-year-old college student, committed suicide. “Every time I thought about her, it was really emotional,” recalls Anne about the period right after her lung transplant. “For some reason, she was not able to have the graces that I did.

“I think of her all the time and I try to thank her,” she adds. “We’ve donated a hymnal at church in her name and every once in a while I come across it. A current runs through me.”

Anne doesn’t know Jamie Michelle’s last name because of confidentiality. But she and Walt, in addition to other family members, have written notes of gratitude to the young woman’s family. A beautiful response written by the donor’s mother was forwarded to Anne: “She told us about her daughter, who aspired to be a pediatrician, and how it was really hard for them to make the decision to donate her organs.”

Jamie Michelle, born on September 10, 1978, “was the Angel who kept me looking to the future,” wrote her mother. But on September 22, 1998, her life came to an end. More than 300 people came to the funeral of the girl who loved to sing and dance. “It is wonderful to know that she is still bringing joy and love into this world. It was her wish to be a donor. She only wanted to help people.”

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A Bumpy Ride

Anne Ritter was raised in Port Clinton, an Ohio city on Lake Erie. One of her nine siblings, Teresa, also has CF. When they were youngsters, their mom, Dolores, took Anne and Teresa to the CF clinic at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland about every six weeks for checkups. “We never missed school except for appointments,” explains Anne. “We were very healthy as kids.”

She and Teresa didn’t use antibiotics as often as the CF specialists recommended because their father, Dr. Kraft Ritter, sometimes disagreed with the advice. “Both Teresa and I think that’s what got us so far along,” says Anne. “We didn’t develop resistance.” Anne explains that, to their father’s credit, he also stressed the importance of exercise, which helped her and Teresa to cough up the thick secretions that cause so much lung damage in people with CF. “During the ’60s, many pulmonary patients were encouraged to opt out of physical exertion.”

Anne attended the University of Dayton. After graduation, she moved to Spokane, Washington, where she often ran and biked with friends who were fellow Jesuit Volunteers. She even joined them on a 500-mile bike ride across Iowa: “They knew I was going to be slow, but I always had someone with me to share the sheer thrill of the open country.”

Today, when Anne tells her students about that lengthy bike ride, the youngsters have a hard time believing that their teacher who had a lung transplant was ever able to accomplish such a strenuous activity.

Eventually, Anne settled in Cincinnati, where some of her siblings had moved. She received medical care for CF at Children’s Hospital until the mid-1990s, when an adult CF clinic was established in Cincinnati. The increasing number of adult CF clinics signifies that many people with the disease are living past childhood.

Anne met Walt through their mutual love of music, evidenced by the four guitars prominently lined up along a wall in their living room and the piano in the dining room, where a songbook of Beatles tunes is displayed. Anne and Walt had been in separate church choirs that joined forces. “It was Catechetical Sunday,” recalls Anne of the day she encountered her future husband. “We started going out and playing guitars a lot.”

By the time Anne was in her mid-30s, she and Walt were married and living in a multilevel house in which the bedroom and bathroom were upstairs. Her lungs had deteriorated to the point that she was told to think about a transplant.

“We looked for something like this happening down the road,” explains Walt. “We bought a house we thought we could afford so that, if something happened, we could live on one salary for a while.” They had saved for a potential medical emergency.

Anne’s health kept declining. “I had a lung hemorrhage,” she says. “My mom came to stay with us at the time because I was afraid to be alone with that hemorrhage.”

Anne, who was on oxygen, had difficulty climbing the steps. So Walt moved their bed downstairs. Anne’s family chipped in to have a bathroom and laundry installed on the first floor.

While Anne’s condition worsened, she and Walt were deeply affected by a series of local news stories about Tory Koch, a cheerful young girl with CF who was followed through her lung transplant, relapses and death at 14.

Tory had touched many people in southwest Ohio. Laura Pulfer wrote in The Cincinnati Enquirer that the Ohio Valley LifeCenter, which coordinates organ and tissue donations in the area, reported “an unusually high number of donations in 1995, the year Tory died.”

Walt says about Tory, “She gave me hope and despair. It made me more scared.”

Anne remembers Tory describing how thrilled she was to be able to ride a bike after her transplant. “Fifty percent of lung-transplant recipients at that time died during the first year,” explains Anne. “I felt that I had lived a full life, married and had a career. So I didn’t think I should do it [have a transplant]. It was so expensive and I didn’t think it was worth it.” She changed her mind after talking to many people, including a Catholic hospital chaplain.

But Walt wondered if his wife was still a suitable candidate, due to her having more bad days than good, numerous hospitalizations and frequent need for antibiotics. Even if she passed the tests, obtaining donor lungs for someone with Anne’s slight frame would be an additional challenge: Donor organs need to match the size and blood type of the recipient.

Surprisingly, Anne passed the tests. She was on a waiting list for a double-lung transplant for two years at one hospital before she changed to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Barnes-Jewish required Anne to arrive within two hours after she was notified that donor lungs were available. The hospital was about a five-hour drive. Relying on a private plane to fly her there within two hours seemed too risky.

Thus, Anne rented an apartment in St. Louis. While living there, she notes, “I was required to have someone with me at all times.” Friends and relatives took turns staying with her for short periods.

Anne had several connections to St. Louis: Her parents had both attended school there, and some cousins lived near Anne’s apartment. In addition, her great-uncle, the late Cardinal Joseph Ritter, had been archbishop of St. Louis in the mid-1900s. Many institutions in the Gateway City are named after this prominent and influential Church and civic leader.

When Anne was living in St. Louis, Walt, an auto mechanic at the time, kept working in Cincinnati to provide them with an income. (Currently, he is performing desktop support for computer problems while working on his bachelor’s degree.) He drove the round trip on weekends whenever he was able. Since their health insurance was through Anne, who was on leave of absence, they paid COBRA premiums so that they had continued coverage. (COBRA gives employees and their families who lose health benefits the right to continue coverage for a limited time.)

When donor lungs finally became available for Anne, she says, “I had been in the hospital a couple of weeks and I was weak, on a ventilator,” due to respiratory arrest.

On the day of Anne’s lung transplant, Walt was in Cincinnati. His voice falters as he recalls rushing to St. Vincent Ferrer School, where his wife had been teaching, to announce the good news: “You could hear all those kids screaming, even the ones who didn’t know her.”

Anne had to stay in St. Louis for a few months after her lung transplant to be near the hospital. During that period, she met and grew close to many other lung-transplant recipients.

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH is one of many religions that support ethical organ donations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged” (#2296).

Pope John Paul II reinforced the Church’s support of organ donations. In 2000, when he addressed the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, the pope repeated his words from Evangelium Vitae, regarding “the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope” (#86).

In 1999, prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger revealed that he was a registered organ donor. “To donate one’s organs is an act of love that is morally licit, so long as it is free and spontaneous,” he told Zenit International News Agency.

Even though Anne and Walt had health insurance, they estimate that their out-of-pocket expenses were about $25,000. “We depleted our savings,” explains Anne.

They are very appreciative of the support they received from relatives, friends and parishioners: People donated money and airline tickets, brought them meals and took turns staying with Anne in St. Louis, and offered many prayers.

When Anne was still on a waiting list and living at home, she recalls the assistance they received from an elderly woman at their parish, Holy Trinity, who “helped us out by coming once a week to do laundry and grocery shopping. She was a Godsend, a spark of cheer and good will. She died just a few years later.”

During that pre-transplant period, Anne was on oxygen and teaching at St. Vincent Ferrer, “where so many did everything they could to help me out,” she says. “A teacher would drive my car up to my door to save me steps. And they would bring lunch over from the cafeteria.”

Father Terry Hamilton, pastor of St. Vincent at the time, recalls the tremendous amount of support Anne received from the school. “She’s such an endearing person, so kind and unpretentious,” he says. “No matter what the crisis was, there was always on her part such a deep trust that ‘God will provide. It’s going to be O.K.’”

He adds, “She was always concerned about other people who were going through similar situations, reaching out to others rather than to herself, even though she was going through hard times.”

Diane Lux confirms this sentiment about Anne: “She endeared herself to others because of her acceptance and the way she has allowed God to work through her.” She recalls comments made by teachers and students who knew Anne and said such things as, “She is always smiling. She is always happy. I didn’t know she was sick.”

It would be nice if that were the end of Anne’s story, but it isn’t. Following her lung transplant, she developed kidney problems as a side effect of anti-rejection medications. “I began dialysis in March 2004,” she says. But that didn’t stop her from teaching.

Meanwhile, her sister Teresa was also experiencing kidney problems: CF and diabetes had taken their toll. In May 2004, Teresa had a transplant, with a kidney donated by her brother Paul. As a result, she says, “My quality of life is 100-percent better.”

The following month, Anne had a kidney transplant, donated by her sister Margaret. Both of these living-donor transplants took place in Cincinnati: The donors and recipients all lived in the area. But their parents lived several hours away in Port Clinton. “Our mom was busy and a true blessing,” says Anne, recalling that their mom stayed with each of the donors and recipients during their recuperation.

Teresa confirms this sentiment about their mother: “It was hard on her, emotionally and physically.”

A few years ago, Anne and Walt moved into a smaller, one-story house that is easier for Anne to navigate. She says she has more energy than before her lung transplant, but she has to keep reminding herself of advice from doctors that she can’t do everything.

“I am taking a break from choir this year and I cut back on a few other obligations,” she notes. “I’m going to take more time to rest.”

Recently, her pulmonary-function tests have been showing a decline. “They’re talking about lung rejection. I was afraid at first, but now I just have to live with it,” she says matter-of-factly.

“I’ve always had strong faith,” says Anne. “I think God gives me the resources and when I use them, I am fine. I pray a lot but I don’t really pray about my health. I pray to help me have a better outlook, to be a better person.”

 

ONE OF THE MOST difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make involved giving permission to donate tissues from my youngest child, Ritch, who died at age 36 in 2006. Both of my sons, Tim and Ritch, were born with cystic fibrosis.

Tim died at age 33 in 2001 while on a waiting list for a lung transplant. The condition of his body did not make him a candidate for organ or tissue donation.

Ritch would have needed a liver transplant if he had lived. Although none of his organs were suitable to “harvest” for transplantation, his tissues were in great condition because Ritch faithfully exercised and ate right.

While Ritch’s organs were shutting down in his bloated body, my husband, daughter and I were asked to make the choice we knew Ritch supported because we found his signed donor card in his wallet. Inspired by the Terri Schiavo controversy, our family had discussed end-of-life issues while we were all together not long before Ritch had been hospitalized. That made our decision easier, but not easy.

As we kept saying yes to each body part that would be removed from Ritch after his death, I thought I’d have graphic nightmares about the details of what they were going to do to my baby, the child I had conceived and nourished in my body for nine months. This was the child I had diapered, fed, cuddled and watched grow from the smallest of my babies to the tallest of my offspring. Although it was painful to say yes, saying no was never an option.

Saving Lives

It still isn’t easy to read through the list we received that specifies each bone, muscle and other body part removed from Ritch for transplantation. But I haven’t had the nightmares I expected. Instead, I keep thinking that many people’s lives have been improved because a little bit of Ritch is living on in them: Each donor can help as many as 50 people.

I know that Ritch would be pleased to know that some of his skin might have been grafted onto a burn victim. Perhaps an injured soldier is able to walk again because of Ritch’s strong bones and muscles.

I can’t help smiling when I think that his Achilles tendon could have been transplanted into an elderly grandma who suddenly has the urge to go water-skiing: Ritch was an accomplished barefoot water-skier.

Critical Need for Donors

Although there are some limitations regarding who can be organ and tissue donors (HIV-positive, active cancer, systemic infection), there are no strict age limits (www.organdonor.gov). My friend Joanne was 79 when she died recently from a heart attack. Her family followed Joanne’s wishes to bequeath her body to the same medical school where her recently deceased husband’s body was donated. At Joanne’s memorial Mass, a relative of hers proudly announced that her corneas and other tissues were donated for transplantation.

To give the gift that keeps on giving, don’t just sign your donor card: Ask your family to discuss their end-of-life wishes when you are gathered together: This isn’t something you want to keep secret. —Mary Jo Dangel

Mary Jo Dangel is assistant managing editor of this magazine. Her two sons, Tim and Ritch, died in their 30s as a result of cystic fibrosis. The first time she met Anne and Walt Hambrick was at Tim’s funeral. Anne recalls seeing Tim and Ritch at the CF clinic. Tim, an architect, worked on the design of a school where Anne teaches. Tim and his wife, Holly, met Anne and Walt to discuss the pros and cons of transplantation.


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