Nearly 10 years ago, on a family vacation, the first symptoms appeared: tingling hands. A few doctor visits later confirmed a relatively innocuous diagnosis, polymyositis, attributed to an autoimmune disorder. My mom, at 53 years old, didn't think much of it at the time; uncomfortable but not life-altering. That would change when the same autoimmune gene that affected her hands, manifested as Interstitial Lung Disease and started attacking her lungs.
It's hard to understand how a woman who has never smoked or drank in her entire life can have a lung disease, but that's the craziest part of autoimmune disorders: they aren't caused by lifestyle or environment, your body is attacking itself. In my mom's case, ILD caused the lining of her lungs to harden, making it progressively more difficult to breathe. That thing everyone does all day every day was becoming a challenge for her as simple daily tasks became increasingly difficult.
Immunosuppressant medication and supplemental oxygen were used to delay the inevitable; she would eventually need a double lung transplant. It was a scary concept for everyone, but doctors assured us that this "last resort" was many years away.
Unfortunately, her disease progressed more rapidly than doctors anticipated and eventually she was added to the transplant list. The one thing we were hoping to avoid was now the thing we were praying for the most. When she was placed at the top of the list, doctors told us that if a transplant didn't arrive, she might have only months to live.
In November 2014, she got the call we were waiting for and received two new lungs. The surgeons, nurses, respiratory therapists and pulmonologists at Cleveland Clinic (especially Dr. Mehta) have been amazing in their continued care of my mom. It still blows our minds to think that these miracle workers were able to give our mom new life; more years with her two beloved grandchildren and the chance to meet her third when my sister gives birth in the next month or so. This is why we are most grateful.
Most of us don't think twice when deciding whether or not to be an organ donor. Either we check "yes" or check "no" and that's the end of it. But I will never take that decision for granted again. Somebody made the decision to become an organ donor and it saved my mom's life, and probably others as well.
Her recovery was challenging but my mom is still doing great today. If you met her (and I highly encourage you to do so because she's pretty awesome) you would never know she is a transplant recipient. She will be on medications for the rest of her life and must avoid certain environments, but is otherwise a happy and healthy mother, grandmother and wife (has it taken me this long to mention my dad? Oh yeah... he's been pretty important in all of this as well).
Organ donation is something I hope you never have to think about, never be affected by in the way my mom and my family have. I am grateful to anyone who checks "yes" to being an organ donor because I know what an impact it can make on not just one life, but the countless others who love and depend on that person.
This April, as we celebrate National Donate Life Month, I encourage anyone who isn't an organ donor to at least give it a second thought. But there are also other ways to support great programs, like Donate Life, which offers volunteering and fundraising opportunities.
Being an organ donor really does make a difference, and anyone can do it. Most people think only doctors can save lives. But in my mom's case, I’m most grateful to the person who checked that box.