LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Lisa Russell, a heart transplant recipient at The Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center entered the room wearing a mask that protected her nose and mouth. She had a great laugh and a very gregarious personality. Russell, 56, was happy to be alive after receiving her new heart on January 5th, 2016.
After getting permission to remove her mask, Lisa's beautiful smile shined. She was not only happy to be alive, but also thankful.
"I shouldn't be here," Russell whispered with her eyes tearing.
Russell had always considered herself to be leading a healthy lifestyle. As the owner of a farm and her own business, she was very active. She made it a point to walk five miles every day. She then began to notice taking a simple breath took great effort. At night she would wake up struggling for air. She compared it to almost drowning on land. When the struggle became too great, she found herself in the emergency room gasping for air and asking for help.
The diagnosis was heart failure.
"I could no longer breath and I knew I was close to death," explained Russell with tears rolling now down her cheek. "Only 10% of my heart was working. I planned my own funeral."
Russell was literally counting her days.
She had reached a stage of advanced heart failure where her heart was no longer able to pump enough blood to meet her body's needs. Her doctors recommended an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) implant surgery. The LVAD is considered a bridge to transplant. It may remain in place for several years until a heart donor becomes available for a transplant. Three months into learning to live with her LVAD, Russell got the call of a lifetime.
"I received a phone call, and I thought they were teasing that they had a heart for me," Russell remembered.
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Twenty-two people die every day waiting for a transplant.
"You're facing death and you're mentally and emotionally preparing for death," Russell explained. "And then, all of a sudden you're told you get to
live. I received my new heart and I was so thankful. I remember going into surgery and I remember thinking about the family, knowing that I was celebrating life. They were also grieving."
Russell's simultaneous, but opposite emotions of joy and pain are common for transplant recipients. The gift is only possible because of the kindness of families who are willing to say yes to helping others while losing someone of their own. One-hundred-ten incredible organ donors and their families worked with KODA to give the gift of life to 324 people in 2016. Russell was one of them.
"Every day I live so thankful for the life of my donor," she said.
Russell has uttered those words to someone almost every single day since her life-saving surgery, but the words just don't seem to carry the gratitude she has in her heart - her donor heart.
Shaking her head and looking down at the floor, she whispered, "The words never seemed appropriate."
Russell had written, re-written and written again, a letter of gratitude to her donor's family. She meant every word but felt something was till unsaid. During
one of the many nights she laid counting her blessings, she came up with a plan and a way to say 'thank you.' She personally selected a tiny bear to deliver her letter, with a small voice-sound recorder inside.
"I'm recording the heartbeat and I'm putting it inside of a little bear," Russell said beaming.
Russell found it hard to lie still on the table as the doctor helped her record ten seconds of her now-strong, healthy, beating heart. The room was silent, other than the loud swishing, thumping sounds of the heart that works to keep her alive and moving.
"Isn't that wonderful," she laughed.
Then for ten seconds, no one in the room moved as the button on recorder was pushed. The sound recorded will be the first time the donor's loved ones will hear the donor's heart again. The little bear is carrying a big message.
"I'm hoping when they have those difficult days, they can hold on to that bear," Russell passionately explained. "When they hold the Teddy Bear, they'll know that's their loved one's heart."
The donor family has agreed to accept the bear. Russell hopes in time they will also accept an invitation to meet. She also prays that more families will come to understand the importance of such an important gift.
The easiest way for an individual to document their wish to save lives through organ donation is to join the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry, where one's wishes regarding donation will be carried out as requested. By joining the registry, an individual's wishes are documented electronically in a safe and secure database. Joining the donor registry could potentially save or enhance the lives of up to 50 people.
For Kentuckians, joining the Kentucky Donor Registry is as easy as logging on the secure website or signing up when while renewing a driver's license. Indiana is just as easy. A donor heart symbol must be requested to be placed on the license. Signing the back of the license is no longer accepted. The Donor Registry enables family members to know that you have chosen to save and enhance lives through donation. Kentucky has First Person Consent laws in effect, meaning the wishes of an individual will be carried out as requested.
As many as seven lives can be saved with the donation of the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys and pancreas, and up to fifty lives can be enhanced with tissue donation, including restoring sight, helping burn victims and enhancing mobility through spinal and other surgeries.
Since its beginning in October 1987 the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has coordinated over 500,000 organ transplants from deceased donors in the United States.