Special Delivery: A little bear with a lot of heart

Special Delivery: A little bear with a lot of heart
Updated: Feb. 24, 2017 at 5:57 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Every 10 minutes the name of someone in need of an organ is added to the national transplant list and every day at least 22 of them die.

Louisville resident Lisa Russell beat the odds and beat death. Lisa Russell, a heart transplant recipient at The Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center entered the room wearing a mask that covered her nose and mouth and protected her new heart from germs or harm. Russell, 56, was happy to be alive after receiving her new heart on Jan. 5, 2016.

"I shouldn't be here," was the first thing Russell whispered softly with her eyes tearing.

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Russell was here and grateful. She was also determined to find a way to thank her donor family. She could not find the words to express the importance of the gift she was given or the gratitude she felt each day as she rose from bed. Russell decided to pair her words of thanks with the beat of her donor heart. She recorded the sound of her donor heart beating for ten seconds on a voice sound recorder.  The recorder was then placed in a bear and that bear was delivered to the donor's family.

James Stockdale is the father of the recipient. The heart given to Russell belonged to his youngest daughter Elaine.

"We knew that the heart recipient was a 55-year-old woman," he explained. 
 
Stockdale had to sign the final papers releasing the organs of his daughter Elaine. The easiest way for an individual to document their wish to save lives through organ donation is to join the Kentucky or Indiana 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.

"I was in turmoil for signing off on donating her organs but she had signed off on her license for it", he shared.

"I felt like I was sending her off to the butcher," he explained during a phone call. "I finally got peace about it about a month ago."

Russell also faced her own inner turmoil after receiving her new heart.

"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.

Organs that can be donated after death are the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas and small intestines. Tissues include corneas, skin, veins, heart
valves, tendons, ligaments and bones.  One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save and enhance more than 100 lives through the lifesaving and healing gift of tissue donation.

Elaine's organs saved the lives of five recipients.

"After Elaine was deceased and they harvested her organs, they sent us a letter with the ages and sexes of the recipients," Stockdale explained. "Nothing will replace a loved one but that's the best alternative."
 
For Russell it was her only alternative.

"I could no longer breath and I knew I was close to death," explained Russell with tears rolling now down her cheek. "Only 10 percent of my heart was working. I planned my own funeral."

Russell had to find a way to express her daily gratitude to her donor's family.  It was a miracle that she was still alive.

"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. She 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.  Russell personally selected the tiny stuffed bear that would be delivered to her donor's family. The little bear is carrying a big message.
 
Stockdale said with a sigh," I read the letter and I think about ¾ of the way through the letter it says she recorded the heartbeat of my daughter and if you squeeze its right hand you'll hear her heart and it's pretty emotional."

Each member of the family has held the bear close and listened closely to hear the beating heart.  A part of Elaine their daughter, sister, mother and wife is still living in Russell.
 
"I was just really happy to know that she's doing good," Stockdale said with a smile. "She's kind of like family now."

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