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From death comes triumph of life



Published: Sun, April 21, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By WILLIAM K. ALCORN

VINDICATOR HEALTH WRITER

ORGAN DONATION IS AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER coaster in which one person's great joy can rise from another's unspeakable grief.

In Hubbard, Karla Hunsbarger's phone rang. "Get to the hospital," a voice said. "We have your new heart and lungs."

Finally, after being on the list for lungs for about two years and about six months on the list for lungs and heart, she was going to get a chance to see her 3-year-old son, D.J., grow up.

Hunsbarger was dying from primary pulmonary hypertension, the narrowing of arteries that carry blood to the lungs. The increased workload causes the heart to enlarge and eventually fail.

In another city, probably earlier that same day, there was a very different phone call -- this one about death. A Chicago-area family learned their loved one had suffered a stroke or been hurt in an accident or shooting or some other type of trauma, and was brain-dead.

Somehow, despite their agony, members of that Illinois family found a way to think about somebody else, complete strangers, and to allow their loved one to live on in a sense by saying "yes" to donating his organs.

Karla Hunsbarger's prognosis was changed from almost certain death to a decent chance at life.

Making sense of loss

IT WAS FEB. 10, 1980, WHEN ARTHUR HEWITT OF Champion, then a resident of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and his wife at the time, Anne, got the phone call that every parent dreads.

A hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif., told them that their eldest son, 20-year-old Andrew Bennington Hewitt, had been severely injured in a hang-gliding accident in the nearby mountains.

They had to wait three days to make sure, but young, vital, athletic Andrew -- just six weeks shy of his 21st birthday -- was brain-dead.

Do you want to donate his organs, the Hewitts were asked. Arthur and Anne, trying to "make the best out of a horrible tragedy," said "yes."

That decision, they learned later, complied with the wishes of their son, who had indicated on his driver's license that he wanted his organs used in the event of his death.

"What if we had said no?" said Hewitt, noting how important it is that people who want to donate organs make it clear to their next of kin. "We would have felt even worse."

Hewitt said he has "found a great measure of comfort in the knowledge that out of such tragedy can come great good."

"There was only one ray of sunshine for both of us ... the knowledge that, through Andrew, three lives had been saved and two people had received the gift of sight," Hewitt said.

A life saved

HUNSBARGER, 36, DIAGNOSED AT AGE 33 WITH PPH, had her heart-double lung transplant operation at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh on Aug. 21, 2001.

Without the transplant, doctors feared she would have died before the end of that year. Instead, she was home for Christmas, albeit still very ill.

Today she is making slow but steady progress toward a normal life. Hunsbarger drives a little, something she hadn't done for a year, and has even been to the grocery store. The family is starting to talk about taking a vacation -- something else that has been impossible with her illness.

One thing she can't do yet is pick up D.J. She said, however, "Every day I do a little more. I get excited when I can do things I couldn't do before."

The heart-lung transplant operation gave her at least a fighting chance to see D.J. go to school, to see her parents grow old and to love her husband.

The Hunsbargers, like most organ recipients, don't know if her donor was a man or a woman, young or old. All they know is that their life-giver was from the Chicago area, and must have been about her size, because the doctors told her the organs fit perfectly.

The Hunsbargers, though profoundly grateful, say they would be somewhat at a loss for words on how to thank the donor's family if they were to meet. "How do you thank someone for giving you your life?" she said.

"We really appreciate the donor," said Hunsbarger's father, Hervey Grantz of Hubbard. "We wouldn't have her," he said, blinking back tears.

Just say 'yes'

HEWITT SAID HIS "MESSAGE to the people who received Andrew's organs, should I ever meet them, would be: "You're welcome. Thank you for the opportunity we were given to make a great good come out of a great tragedy. Thank you for bringing comfort to us."

Today Hewitt and his new wife, Carol, live in Champion. He is involved in a number of volunteer activities at the Salvation Army and with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Mahoning Valley and Transplant Recipients International Organization.

He also speaks to pupils at area schools and other groups about LifeBanc, the federally designated organ procurement agency for Northeast Ohio, and organ donation.

He tells them poignant stories about an acquaintance, Susan Lise, who died waiting for a heart-lung transplant; and about Don Sexton, a liver transplant recipient, who got his new liver a week before he was expected to die and is now living a full life.

Hewitt urges students to say "yes" to organ donation on their driver's license and fill out a donor's card, and make their wishes known to their next of kin, so others can live.

There are thousands of people nationwide, hundreds in Northeast Ohio, and many in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, on waiting lists. Fourteen people in the United States die every day for want of an organ, Hewitt said.

Failed kidneys

TINA ALLMAN, 32, OF NEWTON Falls, has been diabetic since age 10. Her mother, Rosetta Hrabak, came home in May 2000 and found her passed out on the couch.

She was taken to the hospital. That's when she found out her kidneys had been damaged by the diabetes and were failing. Today, she is in "end stage," which means her kidneys do not work at all.

She was on dialysis, but now does at-home peritoneal treatments three times daily. The treatments remove fluid containing waste products, normally handled by the kidneys, from her stomach lining via an implanted catheter and replace it with fresh fluid. The process is also done at night while she is sleeping.

Balancing the dietary needs associated with both diabetes and kidney disease is difficult. Her mother said she is afraid to leave Tina alone for any length of time, for fear she will pass out from some dietary imbalance and die before anyone finds her.

Even Allman admitted that before her kidney disease, she'd always said "no" on her driver's license when asked if she wanted to be an organ donor.

"Now, I'd give everything I have. Until you're affected by it, you just don't know," she said.

"You can't blame people. Just let them know so they understand. I think the public is not educated enough about transplants -- how safe they are -- and how desperate the need is," she said.

Allman, otherwise healthy, is on two lists: one for a kidney-pancreas transplant, and one for kidney only.

She has received only one phone call that there was a kidney-pancreas available for her since she was put on the national transplant list two years ago. It was at 5 a.m. on her birthday, June 10, 2001.

"I was so excited. I was dancing around the house," she said.

But several calls later that day, she was told the pancreas was too small.

"I was devastated. I just want a kidney-pancreas so bad," she said softly. "I just want to be healthy. I just want a normal life."

Seeking live donor

JUDITH MINOGUE OF HOWLAND, a former Youngstown State University English professor and founder of the Mill Creek Ramblers, a folk music group, was put on the national donor list for a kidney two months ago.

Her husband, Brendan, is a professor in YSU's philosophy and religion department, specializing in bioethics. He is lead singer with the Mill Creek Ramblers. The Minogues have lived in Howland since 1994, moving from Youngstown.

Judith, who has a genetic disorder, is hoping to get a kidney from a living donor because she believes the organ would be healthier and have a better chance of lasting than one from a cadaver.

Two of her adopted children and two friends have volunteered to give her a kidney and are being tested for compatibility.

Minogue said kidneys that function at 20 percent of capacity are eligible for dialysis. Her kidney functions at 14 percent of capacity, and although she is not yet on dialysis, she says it is imminent.

"I'm still feeling pretty good ... but I feel like I'm on the edge of a cliff," she said.

Minogue, 57, who writes and sings songs for the Mill Creek Ramblers, also plays the hammered dulcimer in high-stress areas, such as intensive care, in local hospitals.

"I have so many more songs to sing and so much more music to write," she said. "And my grandchildren -- two little boys, ages 11/2 and 3 -- I want a chance to see them grow up."

"People not involved don't realize just how important organ donation is. They don't realize it gives people a chance to live that they wouldn't otherwise have," Minogue said.

"Other than my kidneys, I'm a healthy person. And, with a new kidney, I would have a chance to live a lot more years. That's an amazing gift."

alcorn@vindy.com




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