Organ donation benefits donor families, recipients alike
By Patrice Sawyer Guilfoyle
Leland resident Beth O’Reilly bubbled with excitement the morning of April 18 as she shared news about the impending arrival of her third grandson.
“I got to go in to see the sonogram,” she said, clapping her hands in delight. Dr. Charles Moore, professor of medicine, Tammy Thomas, director of transplant services for University Heart, and Kelly Holly, transplant coordinator, smiled in response as they gathered around her in the catheterization lab. It’s impossible not to share O’Reilly’s joy.
The news marked a celebration of life for both grandson and grandmother.
A year ago in April, O’Reilly, 56, received a new heart to replace the one that had grown weak from disease. The opportunity to see baby Guy Hall arrive in September is one that would have been lost if not for the gift of an organ donor and his family.
“I would hug and kiss them and thank them for the greatest gift in my life. They gave me my life back,” O’Reilly said.
To raise awareness of organ donation, the Medical Center honored organ donors and recipients at an event Tuesday in University Hospital and encouraged employees to consider becoming a donor. Because UMMC is the state’s only organ transplant center, the relationship between UMMC and the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency is vital to the well-being of all Mississippians, said MORA CEO Kevin Stump.
“We work very hard to make sure what we do benefits the donor families and the recipients,” he said. “It’s giving people a second chance at life. For the donor families, this gives them the hope their loved ones’ loss of life was not in vain.”
O’Reilly is grateful to not just her donor family, but also the UMMC staff that cared for her round-the-clock. Dr. Curt Tribble, professor of surgery and a cardiothoracic surgeon, performed O’Reilly’s heart transplant.
“I was knocking at death’s door and they pulled me back,” O’Reilly said last week before her one-year follow-up exam.
Looking at her, no one would know that O’Reilly spent three months in intensive care. For weeks, a ventricular assist device kept O’Reilly’s blood pumping and her heart, kidneys and lungs functioning. Medical staff had “the talk” with the family during that time, Thomas remembered.
“That was not a good day. They asked us to do all that we could,” she said.
O’Reilly’s journey to the Medical Center began Jan. 30, 2011. She had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2004. The symptoms of the disease caused her to leave a 23-year career as a special education teacher.
But something felt different that Sunday night when she contacted her cardiologist in Greenville.
“I was having headaches. I was short of breath. I was running fever. I don’t know how to describe it other than I felt bad.
“They thought I was having a heart attack,” she said.
O’Reilly was admitted to the ICU at Delta Regional Medical Center, then was transferred to UMMC a few days later. An MRI and catheterization revealed the culprit – myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle usually caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infections.
O’Reilly spent three months in UMMC’s cardiac ICU.
“It was fortunate we were able to support her during the severe part of her illness,” Moore said.
What O’Reilly remembers about that time isn’t much. She was bedridden most of the time and unconscious for weeks. When she awoke, she recalled that her feet were swollen about three times their normal size. A few short steps to her room’s sink left her breathless.
“I tried not to think about tomorrow,” O’Reilly said about those days in the ICU. “I thought basically I’ve got 12-15 hours to focus on this day. I just kept saying I’ve got to get well. I want to see my grandsons grow up.”
It was after midnight on April 10 when she and her family got the news they had been waiting to hear.
“They woke me up and said, ‘Mrs. O’Reilly, we have a heart.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ They said, ‘No ma’am, we don’t kid about things like this.’” she said.
It took weeks after the surgery for O’Reilly to regain her strength. She had to relearn how to walk, even how to write. Her recovery is nothing short of miraculous, she said.
“I know the doctors used the tools that they have been given, but I truly give God all the credit for keeping me,” O’Reilly said.
Moore said O’Reilly is proof of the life-giving significance of organ donation.
“You can get an idea of how important that is to a patient like Beth O’Reilly, who has the love of her family, a life regained and shows the gusto with which they receive their new opportunities,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, O’Reilly talked on the phone as the laughter and screams of her grandsons, ages 3 and 2, could be heard in the background. As a mother of two sons, O’Reilly said she was accustomed to the noise.
“Little girls are sweet, but there’s something about boys. Little boys just got my heart, in every way,” she said.’