Recipients, donors can thrive, but many still wait for organs

Gwen Chamberlain
Lisa Crosby celebrated the fifth anniversary of her double lung-heart transplant on Nov. 6, 2011.

If you’re looking for a resolution for the new year, Lisa Crosby has an idea that takes little effort, but a bit of thought — become an organ donor.

Crosby recently marked the fifth anniversary of a double lung/heart transplant that gave her a second life.

“I have done things that I couldn’t do before. I can do anything I want to,” says the 39-year-old Penn Yan woman.

The life-saving surgery was performed on Nov. 3, 2006, over five months after she was admitted to the Cleveland Clinic for care after her own heart began to fail.

Crosby was born with a very rare congenital heart defect called tetrology of fallot. Doctors didn’t expect her to live past her teens, but with the help of open heart surgery when she was 17, she did.

But in 2005, she became very sick and turned to Strong Memorial Hospital, where she was told nothing could be done to help her —she was not a transplant candidate. Her local doctor, Neal Pritchard, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and referred her to the Cleveland Clinic. When she went there in May 2006 for an evaluation, she was admitted to the intensive care unit, where she remained for two weeks, not knowing if she would survive.

For most of 2006 she was a permanent resident at the Cleveland Clinc, waiting for the day she would get her second chance at life.

Finally, on Nov. 3, 2006,  another person died and she received his or her lungs and heart. Although she has sent a letter to the donor’s survivor(s), she has never heard back from anyone.

It wasn’t until two days before New Year’s Day 2007 that she could return to her Penn Yan home, because of some complications that nearly took her life.

She still had an uphill battle which included a level two rejection and a lung infection that was treated by home health care nursing.

She recovered and started cardiac rehabilitation at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital in Penn Yan. “Then one day I woke up and I felt better,” she says.

As she grew stronger, she took on new challenges. She took a trip to Montana with her sister, where she hiked and rode a bicycle for the first time before flying home alone, making two plane changes along the way.

Before the transplant she would not have the stamina to make the trip.

She returned to work at Longs Cards & Books and eventually moved out of town for a few years. She returned to Penn Yan several months ago, and took a new job as a receptionist at Eastview Veterinary Clinic.

She has to use a little extra care around potential contaminants on the job and in everyday life, but she doesn’t seem overly concerned about the measures.

Now, after five years, when Crosby talks about the life she’s leading, she reflects on the possibility of a “bigger meaning,” and wonders if there is something more grand that she should be accomplishing.

Maybe that something is getting the word out about how important organ donation can be — how one simple, generous act can mean life for someone else.

“If you could do something good for someone as your final statement, make it organ donation. You really are someone’s hero when you donate an organ,” she says.

Anyone can be a donor

Pledging your organs is as easy as checking a box on your driver’s license renewal, or as simple as filling in a few blanks online. You don’t have to die to be a donor.

Blood donation is one of the most common donations, and thousands of kidney transplants each year use an organ donated by a living donor. In many cases, living family members donate a kidney to a loved one, and both continue active and productive lives.

In 1978, when Lisa Crosby was just 6-years-old, Dan Spence received a kidney from his mother, Juanita. A recent graduate of Penn Yan Academy at the time, he was 18-years-old.

After 15 years of an active outdoors lifestyle with no real limits, the kidney failed and he received a second kidney from a brother, Lyle, in 1993.

After more than 18 more years, all three Spences continue to  lead healthy, active lives:

Dan, who lives on Seneca Lake near Long Point, travels to Rochester every day for his work at Fisher Associates, where he is a construction survey coordinator.

He climbed half of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks, beginning in 1984, with his mother’s kidney, and climbed the other half with his brother’s kidney, becoming 46er #4958 on Sept. 15, 2001. He is an active member and former president of the Friends of the Outlet Trail.

Juanita, who was 53 when she donated her kidney, is now nearly 87, and is active in Dresden Methodist Church, Eastern Stars and family activities. Before her retirement, she was office manager for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, and volunteered for Women for New York State Wines for many years.

Lyle, who lives in Worland, Wy., is an appraiser for Farm Credit Services of America, covering a large territory in Western Wyoming. In his spare time, he raises horses and is a big game hunter in the Big Horn Mountains, among other pastimes.

The Crosby and Spence families are among the dozens who are keenly aware of how important organ donation can be. But Crosby is concerned that unless people are directly touched by the need, they won’t take the time to pledge a donation. She says its important to discuss your wishes with family members because they will need to discuss issues with medical professionals.