Giving the gift of life

This post originally was published in the Enid News & Eagle April 30, 2018 as an article on organ and tissue donation. If you haven’t already registered as an organ and tissue donor, please visit organdonor.org and do so. The mother and three of the kids in the picture below wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for someone who made the choice to register as an organ donor.

Nita French

Double transplant recipient Nita French, second from left, was pregnant with her oldest daughter, Kayle Grace, far right, when she found out she needed a kidney and pancreas transplant. A transplant from a 27 year-old organ donor gave French a second chance at life, and the opportunity to have three more children with husband, Dennie: from left, Chayse, Channing and Chandler. (Photo provided)

Enid, Okla. — Nita French, originally from small northern Oklahoma town of Jet, was a young college student, just finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, when she received two pieces of news that would forever change her life: she was pregnant, and her kidneys were failing.

Before long, French would join almost 125,000 other Americans on the waiting list for organ donation, and face questions about whether or not she’d be able to carry her baby to term.

French, who was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 12, said she didn’t fully comprehend the diagnosis of kidney failure when she first received it.

“I didn’t really understand the implications when the doctor said, ‘Your kidney function is starting to decline,'” French said. “I was just excited because I always wanted to have a baby, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to do that after living with diabetes for so many years.”

But, the implications of her diagnosis set in not long into her pregnancy.

“When I went back to Tulsa for my doctor’s check-up he said, ‘You’re very, very sick,'” French said. “I didn’t really understand what he meant when he said ‘We’re going to have to put you in the hospital to keep you pregnant.'”

Even with inpatient care, French’s condition degraded to include problems with her liver and high blood pressure.

At only 25 weeks into her pregnancy, the doctors had to perform an emergency Cesarean section to save both her and the baby.

The surgery saved French’s daughter. Kayley Grace, who was born weighing 18 ounces, now is 19 years old and studying nursing at NWOSU.

But the fight wasn’t over for French. She had hoped, after the pregnancy, her body would return to normal.

“My doctor said, ‘You don’t understand, you’re going to need a transplant,'” French said.

Her doctor, however, said she needed a transplant of both a kidney and pancreas. Meanwhile, her health continued to decline as the wait for a transplant passed six months. Her wait continued on for five more months, undergoing dialysis three days a week while raising her young daughter.

After she’d been on the waiting list for 11 months, French finally got the anticipated call — the hospital had a match for her transplant. But, the elation was short-lived.

“We rushed to the hospital and they prepped me for surgery,” she said, “but then they came in and said, ‘This isn’t going to work out.'”

The organ donor was a gunshot victim, and the bullet had punctured the pancreas. Since she would be receiving a double transplant, she needed to receive both organs from the same donor, to reduce the chances of her body rejecting the new organs.

After another year, she got the call again, but, again, it didn’t work out. An abnormality made the donor’s kidneys unsuitable to transplant.

After two canceled transplants, French said her optimism took a serious blow.

“That was the first time I really had to face my mortality, and I thought, ‘I may not survive this, I may not get to raise my little girl,’ and that was really scary,” she said. “But, at the end of the day, I didn’t have any choice but to wait for another phone call.”

Two months later, she got the call again. That time, the surgery went through to a successful transplant. After the surgery, French said she was amazed at how much better she felt. But, she also felt a mix of grief and gratitude for the donor, and his family.  The donor’s family opted to let French know the identity of the man whose organs she now carried: Patrick Mercer, a 27 year-old man from Tulsa.

She said Mercer’s gift enabled her to not only raise Kayley Grace, but to also marry and have three more children: two more daughters, Chayse, 11, and Channing, 9, and a son, Chandler, 5.

French now works as the community outreach coordinator for LifeShare of Oklahoma, the nonprofit agency that oversees the state’s organ donor registry.

She encourages individuals to register as organ and tissue donors, and remains inspired by the gifts of organs given by donors, and by the giving spirit of donors’ families.

The family of Sam Akin, an Emerson Middle School student who died after an accident last October, shared their story through a LifeShare press release.

Sam’s mom, Brandi Akin, said the decision to offer his organs and tissue for donation was made easier, because she knew Sam would continue on through the donations.

Sam’s organs saved four lives, and his tissues helped more than 75 more, according to the LifeShare press release.

Brandi Akin said working with LifeShare through the organ donation process has been a blessing for the family.

“Everyone we have encountered through LifeShare has been a blessing during the worst time in our lives,” she said. “When we have really needed people with compassion, LifeShare has been there for us.”

Melissa Thomas said she lives each day now to honor donors like Sam Akin and his family.

The mother of four was diagnosed with an aggressive form of polycystic kidney disease and polycystic liver disease seven years ago, and in 2015 her kidney function fell to a critical level.

After almost two years of getting on the transplant list, and waiting for a donor, Thomas received a kidney transplant last May. She never got to know her donor’s identity, but she said each day she works to honor their life, and their family’s loss.

“I was fortunate,” Thomas said. “The big thing about the transplant is, I am bound and determined to honor the person who gave it to me. They were young. They were the age of my kids, and the best thing I can do at this point is to take care of the kidney.”

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