The gift of life connects two families for a lifetime - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

The gift of life connects two families for a lifetime

Gene Stogsdill, Emilee Stogsdill and Lisa Russell (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News) Gene Stogsdill, Emilee Stogsdill and Lisa Russell (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
Elaine Stogsdill (Source: Family photo) Elaine Stogsdill (Source: Family photo)
Gene Stogsdill (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News) Gene Stogsdill (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
Lisa Russell (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News) Lisa Russell (Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE 3 News)
The device containing the recorded heartbeat of Elaine Stogsdill. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archives) The device containing the recorded heartbeat of Elaine Stogsdill. (Source: WAVE 3 News Archives)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Twenty people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. Every 10 minutes another person is added to the organ donor waiting list. It's a roller coaster ride for families who must take this journey. With the help of Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA), I caught up with two families who share the pain and the miracle of it all.

These are two tragic stories.

"Elaine had a cerebral stroke," said Gene Stogsdill as he sat before an attentive crowd filled with those who work each day saving lives through organ and tissue donation and transplantation. "She went into cardiac arrest. She didn't survive."

Gene did his best to share what he could while pausing and trying to catch his breath between the words. He started the story at the end of his daughter's journey. That was after a call to 911 on January 2, 2016.

"I pulled up to the house with my grandson and she (Elaine) walked out and got on the gurney," Gene explained casually.

On three previous occasions, Elaine had been to the hospital complaining of back pain along with serious pain and pressure in her head. Her father hoped maybe the fourth trip might be able to not only find some answers for his daughter, but also some relief. 

With no great concern at the time, Gene told Elaine, "I'll be there by 6:30." 

By the time the ambulance had made it way less the mile from her father's home, Elaine's condition turned grave. She was airlifted to University of Louisville Hospital.

At age 35, Elaine, the youngest of Gene Stogsdill's seven children, died. 

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At 56-years-old, Lisa Russell spent most of her days hiking, running and practicing Pilates. But as she slept, Lisa suffered from not being able to get enough air, almost as if she was drowning. As so many people do, Lisa searched the internet about her symptoms. It appeared she had a hernia, per her self-diagnosis. Later that night her uncomfortable feeling while sleeping turned into an emergency and Lisa found herself in the ER. 

The diagnosis was congestive heart failure. Only 10% of Lisa's heart was working. 

"I could no longer breathe and I knew I was close to death," Lisa said. 

Without intervention, Lisa realized she would die. She received a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. Implanted in a patient waiting for a heart transplant, the LVAD is called a Bridge to Transplant. The patient's LVAD may remain in place for several years until a heart donor becomes available for transplant. After having her LVAD only three months, Russell got the call about her donor heart.

Lisa smiled as she explained all the emotions she experienced after receiving the call her donor heart was on its way.

"I don't have kids but I felt like a mom whose water just broke," she explained with a smile shaking her head. "I'm running around the house getting my bag packed and everything ready and calling everyone to tell them I'm headed to the hospital."

Then you could see Lisa's facial expression and her emotions change as she continued.

"Although I was excited, my family was excited, my friends were excited, I knew there was someone in this world who was crying that night." 

Gene, accompanied by his granddaughter, Emilee, was there to share the story of the loss of his daughter and the family's decision to donate her organs. Elaine Stogsdill's death gave Lisa Russell a second chance at life.

"This is the absolutely best outcome of a really bad situation," said Gene.

Lisa received the heart of Elaine Stogsdill. It is a story WAVE 3 News has been following since the beginning. A bad situation that became a blessing for both families.

Gene did not know who had received his daughter's heart. With all the rules of privacy and all the waivers signed, they had no idea what step to take next to meet the person now holding his daughter's heart.

Russell also wanted to respect the donor/recipient process. But she reached out to KODA to see if she could record the heartbeat of her new heart on a small recording device. She placed that device in a small teddy bear. WAVE 3 News was there to document this gesture of gratitude and love. KODA sent the bear to the donor family. It was our story that caught the attention of the Stogsdills.

"One of my daughters seen the interview with Dawne Gee on one of the local TV," Gene said.

One evening while I was at work, Gene reached out to me. He told me all about his daughter and how he loved her. He shared stories of the love she had for her children and the fun she had with her brothers and sisters. He also asked me if I knew the recipient of his daughter's heart, and if I did, would I tell her they would love to meet her. I shared that message with Lisa.

The two families came together on July 30, 2017.

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"For me, I've gained a new family," Lisa said.

And they have all gained and sense of gratitude.  

"I'm very blessed," said Lisa. "People get tired of hearing me say that, but I'm very blessed."

Blessed and very aware that there are far more people in need of a transplant than people willing to donate organs. Lisa Russell is forever grateful and forever holding on to those her donor loved so much.

Lisa smiled and giggled as she explained, "I started to make brownies all the time after getting my heart and I learned that was a favorite thing Elaine loved to do with her daughters."

As a health fanatic prior to her transplant, Lisa did not crave sweets often. She has also acquired a taste for fried chicken. Another new item occasionally added to her menu, she believes, because it was a favorite of her donor.

"We now have the same DNA," she laughed. "For no other words my heart has been warmed knowing that my heart experienced so much joy and so much life with Elaine," Lisa said.

"Now it's my responsibility to carry that love forward."

If you wish to be an organ donor, tell your family as soon as possible. By knowing your wishes in advance, it's not a surprise to your family during a very difficult time and they can actually help you carry out your final wish.

Another way is to make sure you register as an organ donor in the state you live in. Kentucky residents can register online here. Indiana residents, click or tap here to register.

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