Because of someone’s decision to be an organ donor, 61-year-old Leta Ahlbrand received a new liver and was able to go back to work and can now play with her grandchildren.

Emily Hume, 15, has a new heart and the opportunity to be a regular teenage girl.

And Lindsey Elkins, 62, is healthy again and has more time with family and friends after her liver transplant.

All three consider themselves to be “walking miracles,” thanks to the gift of life they received from their organ donors.

In 2016, doctors successfully completed more than 33,600 transplants in the United States, giving patients a second chance at life, according to the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

But more than 119,000 men, women and children still are awaiting a transplant, and another person’s name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.

Around 8,000 people on the list die each year, which is equal to 22 people a day or almost one person per hour, because the organs they need are not donated in time.

April is National Donate Life Month, and Ahlbrand, Hume and Elkins are sharing their stories as a way to encourage people to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. They also want to celebrate their donors, even though they may not know who they are and will never be able to thank them personally.

Ahlbrand’s organ transplant journey started in 2007 at age 55. At the time, she was the secretary at the Seymour Community School Corp. administration office.

“I found out through a school wellness program,” Ahlbrand said. “They did regular, routine blood work, and it came back that all my liver enzymes were skyrocketing.”

The news was shocking because she wasn’t sick or showing any symptoms.

They immediately sent Ahlbrand with her test results to her family doctor, who connected her to Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

“It scared me,” she said.

Although many people develop liver cirrhosis from drinking too much alcohol or from contracting hepatitis C, Ahlbrand did not fit either category, and to this day, she still doesn’t know why she got it.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

At that point, it never occurred to her that she would need a new liver.

“It took a long time to figure out what was going on,” Ahlbrand said. “Every time I would go in, the doctor would tell me I was a puzzle.”

In the meantime, her health kept deteriorating, and her liver continued to fail. Liver failure causes severe jaundice where the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow or green.

“I probably didn’t get real sick until the last couple of years, and then I was very, very sick,” she said. “People started to say my color was bad.”

The liver cirrhosis caused accumulation of fluid in her abdomen, as much as 10 liters, which she had to have drained once a week for about 10 months.

Due to her illness, Ahlbrand was forced to retire early from her job.

“That was probably the worst part of it,” she said.

She developed a clot in the portal vein, which carries blood from the gastrointestinal tract to the liver.

“They had been trying and trying to get that blood clot to move, and it would not, and that’s when they finally said we have to do something,” she said. “So we started looking at doing a transplant.”

But there’s a long time between that first talk of a transplant and actually receiving one, she said.

“You have to go through all of these tests to qualify, and that’s about a seven-month process,” she said.

Once she qualified, Ahlbrand was put on the transplant list and had to wait for a matching donor organ to become available.

She finally received her new liver in 2013, six years after being diagnosed with liver cirrhosis.

“I felt like a whole new person when I woke up the day after surgery,” she said.

For Elkins, the waiting was the most frustrating part.

“You have to wait to see these doctors,” Elkins said. “It’s not like you’re going to call up and get right in.”

She received her new liver in December.

“I had seen a specialist, and we went through some tests, and he told me from the beginning that if he could not help me, he would send me to IU immediately,” Elkins said.

And that’s what happened.

“I was a patient at IU for almost four years,” she said.

What first led Elkins to her diagnosis of liver cirrhosis was itching.

“Every night in bed, my feet would itch so bad, and I used lotions and everything, and before long, I was itching all over,” she said. “At first, the nurse’s aide at the doctor’s office thought we had bedbugs. But if that was the case, my husband would have been having trouble, too.”

Tests showed her bile ducts were severely clogged, which was leading to the intense itching. She also developed jaundice.

“I think the biggest compliment I got after my transplant was that my color was back,” she said.

Like Ahlbrand, Elkins’ cirrhosis was not related to alcohol consumption, but she still had to contend with people jumping to that conclusion.

“I really struggled with that,” she said.

But her illness and transplant brought her family even closer together, she said.

“I noticed a big effect on my brother,” she said. “My daughter and husband were there every day at the hospital. I was just so grateful for all of the family and friends that were always praying for me and helping me. It gives you such a good feeling that all of these people are there supporting you emotionally.”

Hume’s case was different in the sense she was already sick and in the hospital when doctors determined she needed a transplant.

It was in late June 2013 when Hume, a seventh-grader at Seymour Middle School at the time, started showing flu-like symptoms. Then her body began to crash, and she was lifelined to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis.

A virus had attacked and weakened the 12-year-old’s heart, so they performed open heart surgery July 5 and placed Hume on a machine temporarily to take over the heart’s function.

“It was the only thing keeping me alive,” Hume said of the Berlin heart pump.

She was in the intensive care unit for about a month.

“They didn’t think she would need a heart transplant,” Emily’s mother, Linda Hume, said. “That was not even talked about.”

In December of that year, doctors tried to remove the Berlin heart to see if Emily’s heart was better.

“But it wasn’t, and that’s when they said I might need a heart transplant,” Emily said.

She was put at the top of the transplant list, and in late February 2014, she received a call that a donor heart was available.

After they prepped and sedated Emily for surgery, doctors determined the heart wasn’t going to work. But a second donor heart became available, and on March 21, 2014, she received the transplant.

It was successful, and Emily is back to a normal life of going to school at Seymour High School, where she plays on the golf team.

“I can’t do things that put a lot of pressure on my heart, but everything is good,” she said.

Ahlbrand said after going through her ordeal, she now asks friends and family to consider becoming donors if they aren’t already.

“I’m not asking them to go do it,” she said. “I’m asking them to consider it because I wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t saved my life.”

There are two ways to become an organ donor, either by registering online at donatelifeindiana.org/donor-registration or by notifying the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that you want to be a donor when you obtain or renew your driver’s license.

A donor also should make sure their loved ones understand their wishes so they can give final consent if the time comes.

There are more than 3.7 million registered organ donors in Indiana, according to Donate Life Indiana, which manages the Indiana Donor Registry.

It’s possible for a single donor to help more than 75 people, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Ahlbrand said when her feet hit the floor in the mornings, she is always thankful to God and her donor for the opportunity to live another day.

It wasn’t two weeks after her transplant that she wanted to know about her donor so she could thank his family personally. She wrote a letter to the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization, now known as the Indiana Donor Network.

“It was so important for me to find out who this person was,” she said.

She learned he was a young Hispanic man, which she believed explained her new love of Mexican food.

“It’s crazy, but it’s all I want now,” she said.

He had lived in Tennessee, so she had to write another letter to the Tennessee Organ Procurement Organization.

She never heard anything back, so she decided to do her own research, looking up vehicle accidents that occurred in Tennessee on the day she received her liver donation.

Her donor had come to the United States from Guatemala and was staying in Tennessee with friends. The family couldn’t afford to ship the young man’s body back to Guatemala, so they donated his organs, Ahlbrand said.

Originally, Ahlbrand was to receive three of them — liver, pancreas and small intestine — but ended up only needing one, so the other two organs went to help two other people.

After she had recovered from surgery, Ahlbrand and her husband, John, ended up driving to Tennessee and found the friends with whom her donor had been staying.

“I just walked up to the door, and they were as happy to see me as I was to be there,” she said. “God wanted me to meet them.”

Ahlbrand said while she was waiting for a liver, she felt a lot of guilt.

“When all of these people were praying for me and I prayed for myself to get better, I was asking for someone to lose their life so I could live,” she said. “I really struggled with that.”

She believes God still needs her on Earth, so that is why the transplant happened.

Hume hasn’t learned about her donor but said she does have interest in knowing and being able to thank the family.

Although she doesn’t know who her donor was, either, Elkins said that doesn’t keep her from praising that person and their family.

“If you don’t want to be a donor, that’s your personal decision, but look at the number of people it has helped,” she said.

Even before she got sick, Elkins always had been an organ donor on her driver’s license.

“But I don’t think I ever appreciated what that means until I went through it,” she said. “I just thought everyone was a donor.”

Now, as transplant recipients, Elkins, Ahlbrand and Hume can no longer be donors.

“It’s hard knowing I can’t pay it forward,” Ahlbrand said. “That’s why I ask people to consider being an organ donor and saving a life.”

At issue

There are two ways to become an organ donor, either by registering online at donatelifeindiana.org/donor-registration or by notifying the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that you want to be a donor when you obtain or renew your driver’s license.

A donor should also make sure their loved ones understand their wishes so they can give final consent if the time comes.

By the numbers

Donation and transplant statistics

In 2016, more than 33,600 transplants brought renewed life to patients and their families and communities (from 9,900 deceased and 5,900 living donors)

More than 119,000 men, women and children await lifesaving organ transplants (1,100 of them are 10 years old or younger)

About 58 percent of patients awaiting lifesaving transplants are minorities.

Another person is added to the nation’s organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes.

8,000 people die each year (22 people each day, almost one person each hour) because the organs they need are not donated in time.

80 percent of patients on the waiting list are waiting for a kidney. The average waiting time for a kidney from a deceased donor is three to five years.

12 percent of patients waiting are in need of a liver.

More than 134 million people, approximately 54 percent of the U.S. adult population, are registered organ, eye and tissue donors.

Source: Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.