The Gift of Life

The Gift of Life

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News Specialist Shelley Osterloh reportingFor Transplant Patients, the Gift of Life is Bittersweet

Tonight we will begin a remarkable series of special reports we call "The Gift of Life."

The stories are about four families who never met, but who found themselves riding the same emotional roller coaster over a period of just a few days this winter.

Eyewitness News was allowed unprecedented access to these families through the organ donation transplant teams at local hospitals.

Over the next few days, we'll get to know a family who suffered the loss of a loved one and chose to follow through on her wish to be an organ donor.

And we will meet those whose lives have become a waiting game, hoping for the phone call that an organ has been found.

It is a bittersweet moment, to know one life has been lost, but another now has hope from the gift of life.

"He's been sick our whole married life, and I've never really known him to be well, and so to have this chance to get a liver and to have him well..." says Marie Albertson, whose husband, Jack, needs a liver.

Jack Albertson of Ogden has suffered with Auto Immune Hepatisis for seven years. That means his own immune system attacked his liver. He is very sick, and so much amonia builds up in his body it affects his thinking.

His only chance at life is a liver transplant.

Does it feel like he's been waiting a long time?

"Yeah, oh yeah. Too long," Jack says.

Bob Swart has been on the transplant list for more than year.

He is a retired meteoroligst from Salt Lake whose diabetes has deteriorated his kidney and forced amputation of his right leg at the knee. Bob does peritneal dialysis at home four times a day.

"So your whole world revolves around doing that dialysis," says Bob's wife, Chris Swart.

"You just have to wait for a tragedy for somebody else and it's kind of a morbind feeling to think that you have to do that," Swart says.

Andrew McGall, a newspaper edidtor in the California Bay area, spends four hours a day, three times a week on dialysis.

"You are staying alive. The machine keeps you going but it was getting to be a drag at the end of three years," McGall says.

And while they wait, another family confronts a tragedy.

Thirty-three-year-old Cammie Leedom, a single mother of three, was critically injured January 13th in a one-car rollover near Tooele.

For days family members from all over the country gather at her bed at the University of Utah Hospital waiting for her to regain consciousness, hoping she will survive, but realizing, quietly, that her chances are slim.

"She is my friend, my little champion, my baby. It's going to be really hard," says Cammie's mother, Diane Bartlett.

Though still on life support, the doctors tell them she is near brain death, and the family has to make several difficult decisions, including whether to allow Cammie's organs to be retrieved.

"Cammie has always been a loving, giving person and would give anything to anyone. This has been her wish and she has expressed it many times, that she wanted to be a donor," Bartlett says.

"In her death she is giving life. That's how I see it and that makes me feel good about that," says Cammie's father, Phil Burdine.

But what happens next is far more complicated than they expected. For the next few hours, they face more agonizing decisions, dissapointment, and a roller coaster of emotions.

An incredibly tough time for a family who chooses to honor Cammie's wish -- to give the gift of life.

You can't imagine the twists and turns in this story of life and death.

Part II: Re-visiting a Critical Decision

Thirty-three-year-old Cammie Leedom was critically injured in a terrible car crash on Monday, January 13.

Despite their efforts, doctors at the University of Utah Hospital cannot save this single mother of three, and she lays in a coma for two days.

She had wanted to be an organ donor, which means her body must be kept going on life support. If her heart were to stop, blood would stop flowing to the organs and they would not be usable and she could not give the gift of life.

3:30 p.m. Wednesday

Cammie Leedom's family has spent 48 hours agonizing over her critical injuries. They have come to accept her inevitable death, and decide to honor Cammie's wish to be an organ donor.

They share their feelings with us.

"I just feel like in giving that to someone else, maybe we can give them some hope that they won't have to let go now," says Cammie's mother, Diane Bartlett.

By 9:30 that night, family members have said their last good-byes, and doctors at the University of Utah Critical Care Unit perform the last in a series of tests to determine brain death.

To insure that organs can only be taken from those who truly have no chance at life, the patient must meet a very strict set of medical criteria before being declared brain dead. Things like having no pupil response to light, no response to stimulus, spontaneous breathing or blood flow to the brain.

As doctors disconnect her respirator, a nurse says quietly, "she's trying to breathe."

She does NOT meet the criteria for brain death.

"We don't want people to feel like that we are going to recover organs from people who have not met all those criteria or might not be actually dead, and that's why the medical community has come up with this very, very strict guideline," says transplant coordinator Becky Orrson.

"There's two choices: to wait until there is no longer any brain stem activity, or request that the ventilator be pulled and then the organs will not be valid, or you know they won't be able to do any organ donation," says Cammie's father, Phil Burdine.

After accepting the fact that Cammie was gone, the family is now jolted by the sudden change.

"And so now we are back to that sense of loss again, that sense of disappointment again, because we were already talking about, 'wow, wouldn't it be neat if we could meet a recipient,'" says Cammie's stepmother, Karen Burdine.

Part III: Honoring an Organ Donor's Wishes Takes Emotional Toll

When most people think of death, they think of cardiac arrest -- that is when the heart stops beating. If someone dies of cardiac arrest, their organs cannot be used for transplants because blood stops flowing to the organs.

On Monday, January 13, Cammie Leedom -- a single mother in her early 30s -- was critically injured in a car crash in Salt Lake County. She never regained consciousness.

Cammie Leedom had an infectious smile that revealed her love for life and for her three children.

In critical condition for 48 hours after a car accident, her parents and children keep vigil at the University of Utah Hospital. But doctors say she will not recover any brain function.

Cammie had told her family she wanted to be an organ donor.

"Yeah, she talked about it a lot, and she sounded really happy about it, so I'm glad she gets to," says Cammie's 13-year-old daughter, Jaimee.

"I feel privileged to carry out her wishes, and it makes me happy that she's going to help someone else," says Cammie's mother, Diane Bartlett.

But something happens that shocks the family. At the moment doctors remove the respirator, Cammie appears to take a small breath on her own.

"Yes, she's inhaling," says Dr. Lui.

Coordinators explain that though Cammie has a fatal brain injury, while doing one of the exams to establish brain death, one last brain stem function remains: the automatic urge to breathe.

There is very strict medical criteria for a patient to be declared "brain dead," and Cammie is not there yet.

"Now we face a decision. Do we withdraw her life support systems and let nature take its course, which her heart would stop and she would suffer cardiac death and could not be an organ donor, or do they go through a waiting period and will the process of brain death complete itself so she can go on to be a donor," says organ donation coordinator Becky Orrison.

"You know you get ready and you accept the death. Then you get ready for the donation. The direction changed," says Karen Burdine, Cammie's stepmother.

Family members are exhausted, but they agree to prolong their wait until the next day.

"We have to remember this is what Cammie wanted and we will hold out as long as we are emotionally able to do that," says Cammie's father, Phil Burdine.

The next afternoon Cammie Leedom is declared brain dead.

In moments, the wait is over, and the race begins.

"Hi Brenda, it's Paula from Intermountain Donor Services. You heard we have a donor here at the "U?", says organ donation coordinator Paula Mark.

Cammie's care is transferred from one medical team that cared for the patient, to another that begins to test and determine the viability of her life saving organs.

"It's very important to have those lines. As a physician, I am the patient's advocate until that diagnosis is made," says Dr. Elaine J. Skalabrin, M.D., Director of Neuro Critical Care at the University of Utah Medical Center.

And while tests and measurements are done, other teams determine who might be the best match: whose name is at the top of the list. Possible recipients are called, and they race to the hospital.

Jack Albertson needs a liver transplant. He is one of those called. Does it feel like he's been waiting a long time?

"Yeah, oh yeah, too long," Albertson says.

Another man who needs a kidney transplant, Bob Swart, says he's been on the list for almost a year.

But not everyone who needs a transplant get it.

More difficult times are ahead for those who donate, and those whose hopes are tied to that important Gift of Life.

Part IV: Weakened Heart Presents Difficult Decision

Many of us have agreed to serve as organ donors upon our death, but few people probably realize the complexity of the process, and just how many decisions are involved.

Eyewitness News was recently granted access to several families witnessing first hand the difficulties of going through with a donation, in the case of the donor's family, at a time of great grief.

One donor can provide life-saving organs for seven people: that's a heart, liver, two lungs, two kidneys and a pancreas.

So once 33-year-old Cammie Leedom was declared brain dead, transplant coordinators performed a series of tests to determine which organs might be used to help provide the gift of life for others.

Thursday evening, a few hours after Cammie Leedom is declared brain dead:

While some members of the transplant team lead tests to determine the viability of organs, others get out the word to help find potential recipients.

"What I've got for you now is the dimensions of the liver," says organ donation coordinator Paula Mark.

The critical injuries Cammie Leedom sustained in a car crash, and the emergency medical care she received after damaged her lungs and pancreas so they cannot be used for transplantation.

University of Utah hospital doctors are called in to evaluate the condition of her heart.

"Look at this here. Do you see it is thin and doesn't contract at the same time? That's not normal," says cardiologist Daniel Jexina, M.D.

It appears one wall of the heart is weakened.

Doctors don't know if it's because of her injuries, or because of a condition called herniation -- a kind of shock to the heart that occurs at the time of brain death -- a condition that might improve if she is kept on life support for a while.

The family is faced with another decision.

"And if that means waiting an additional 12 hours and re-assess the heart, is that something that you'd want to do, or is that more Diane's call?" asks organ donation coordinator Chuck Zollinger.

"No, that can't happen. The family is drained," Cammie's father, Phil Burdine says.

So the heart is ruled out, but Cammie's gift can still save the lives of others, and the operation to remove other organs is set for that night.

Part V: Waiting for the Perfect Donor Match

Every year in the United States an estimated 6,000 people die while waiting for a critical organ donation.

The wait can be excruciating for the patients and their families.

Shelley Osterloh recently spent time with four such families and was able to record the emotions accompanying the experience.

Right now, there are 260 people here in Utah waiting for organ transplants. Nationally that list has 46,000 names on it.

They are waiting for hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and pancreas.

For some, the wait for the gift of life is torture.

For those whose futures depend on the donation of an organ, it is a moment of hope.

"The only cure would be a transplant to get a new liver, and that was really shocking because we never ... I'm sorry, tears," says Marie Albertson whose husband needs a liver transplant.

What is a tragedy for one family is another's chance at life.

Jack Albertson gets the call about 6 p.m. and his whole family comes to the hospital in joyful anticipation.

Jack desperately needs a liver transplant. His 10-year-old son, Jerry, brings his video camera. But they are keenly aware that their hope comes at another's loss.

"It means a lot that somebody is willing to make their donation and give somebody a chance at living," says Jack's sister, Debbie Bowden.

"I know it's hard for them. It's just a wonderful thing," says another sister, Teresa Odekirk.

At LDS Hospital, Jack Albertson is prepared for surgery. At the same time, surgeons in the O.R. of the University of Utah Hospital carefully remove the donor's liver.

"They let us know that if Dr. Belnap takes the liver out of the donor, if it doesn't look good, and he knows Jack's condition, then he can say no and we won't go through with it, and we will continue to wait for another one," says Jack's wife, Marie Albertson.

And when transplant surgeon, Dr. LeGrande Belnap, sees the liver, he knows it is not the right match for Jack.

Though prepared, the news is devastating to the Albertsons. But for others, there is still hope.

Fifty-five-year-old retired meteorologist Bob Swart and his wife Chris get the call about midnight. They understand the Albertsons' disappointment: this is the third time they've been called to the hospital.

They tell no one until it's a done deal.

Bob has diabetes and must have dialysis four times a day.

"So this is going to make it so we can travel, go see our grandchildren," Chris Swart says.

"It brings back a normal life, hopefully," Bob Swart says.

Back at the University of Utah Hospital, surgeons complete the organ retrieval.

"One of the kidneys will happen tonight. Over at LDS Hospital, I'm probably going to try to place the other kidney with the national waiting list, and the liver is now going to UCLA for a very sick patient there," says organ donation coordinator Craig Myrick.

The liver is carefully boxed in ice and sent to the airport, where it is transported by chartered jet to the patient in Los Angeles.

One kidney goes to LDS hospital for Bob Swart.

And in a five-hour operation, Bob Swart gets his kidney.

Part VI: A Donor's Legacy Lives On

We introduced you to a young woman named Cammie Leedom this week. She died in a car accident, but lives on through the modern miracle of organ donation.

Seldom does the family of a donor meet those who receive their loved one's organs.

But in this series, all of the families have had a chance at least to see each other through television. And the families in our story all agreed to talk openly, because they believe it’s important to educate people about the "Gift of Life."

Bob Swart of Salt Lake City received his kidney in an all night operation at LDS Hospital. Doctors say it's a good match.

"Bob is doing wonderful. His kidney likes him and Bob likes his kidney," says Dr. LeGrande Belnap.

If an organ can't be matched to a local recipient, it might be sent somewhere else, like San Francisco.

One day after Cammie Leedom is declared brain dead from injuries in a car crash, doctors at University of California San Francisco transplant one of her kidneys into Andrew McGall, a 56-year-old newspaper editor from Concord who has waited more than three years for a transplant.

"I had no pain. The kidney started working right away. They sent me home early," McGall says.

McGall has a box full of anti-rejection and anti-infection drugs he must take for the rest of his life, but he is happy, healthy and enjoying the things he missed during dialysis.

His life, like others, is forever linked to Cammie Leedom and her family.

"To extend the gift of life to someone else out of a tragedy, I hardly know how to approach the gratitude," he says.

The medical experts who see the impact of organ donation say the benefits are many, for those families who give as well as those who receive.

"Often there is not anything, any other good that can come from the loss of a family member. But this one positive outcome that can impact so many people," says Dr. Deborah Adey, M.D.

"We have studies this question, and the families that donate organs adjust so much better to the death, to the loss, than those who do not," Belnap says.

"Many of them do sense that their loved one is still, in some sense, alive," he says.

"Here they have this horrible tragedy and now there is something wonderful. Their loved one is living on and their loved one has saved the life of someone else. What greater gift can you give?" says organ donation coordinator Becky Orrison.

And Cammie Leedom's family says knowing that Cammie could help others helped them in their grief.

Her 16-year-old son walked by and said, 'hey I just realized something. My mom isn't really gone if her organs are living in other people,' says Cammie's stepmother, Karen Burdine.

Though they have never met, Cammie's family hopes the recipients have a sense for who she was, what she lived for, and that they honored her wish, to give the gift of life.

"I think it will make a lot of people happier, and it will make my mom happy too," says Cammie's 13-year-old daughter, Jaimee.

"This gives some resolution and decreases the hurt," says Cammie's stepfather, Clay Bartlett.

"I guess I would like them to be able to live their life as she did," says Phil Burdine, Cammie's father.

"I hope they laugh and play and love the people around them because she did, she loved people," says Cammie's stepmother Karen Burdine.

"I hope it gives them a better quality of life and a chance to enjoy their family and their friends and just be happy with her gift," says Cammie's mother, Diane Bartlett.

Our series of stories this week has generated a lot of interest in the subject of organ donation -- if you'd like to learn more, follow the links listed above.

You may have noticed if you've followed this series that there is one organ unaccounted for: Cammie's liver was sent to UCLA and saved the life of a 68-year-old immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand.

He does not speak English and declined our request for an interview, but his daughter writes: "We are very grateful for his health and this miracle gift."

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