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Transplant recipients share their inspirational stories

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Seven years ago, the lives of Dana Haahr, Deb Williams and Vernon Bocherding were vastly different than what they are today.

Haahr had already had over five and a half stints installed to keep blood flowing through his arteries to his heart.

Williams was on a dialysis machine 24 hours a day to help her kidneys filter out poisons in her body.

Bocherding lay near death in a Phoenix-area hospital bed, desperately waiting to receive a new liver to replace one attacked by Hepatitis C.

Sunday night, all three were able to stand before a large crowd at the Zion Lutheran Church in rural Storm Lake as living proof of their success as organ transplant recipients.

The event, sponsored by Aid Association for Lutherans Branch 2451, drew over 75 people from Storm Lake, Newell, Fonda, Ida Grove and Alta, and the speakers held the audience's attention for nearly 75 minutes, urging those in attendance to be organ donors.

For the trio of speakers, the plea held deep meaning, as none of them would be alive today if not for donated organs.

"As the saying goes, 'Don't take your organs with you to Heaven, for Heaven knows we need them here,'" Bocherding said. "That is very, very true."

* In Search of a Heart - Dana Haahr has literally been able to come back from the dead.

The Newell turkey farmer, who has two daughters and four grandchildren, had his first heart attack in 1985, and it was severe enough that doctors needed to use electroshock therapy just to keep him alive.

"When I got to the hospital, I was told to lay down and relax, and when I did, I died," Haahr said. "After shocking me for about six times they got me back, and I then had to go through recuperation, including a double bypass. That was kind of the start of my problems."

Eight years later, Haahr had another major heart attack, and then suffered several smaller attacks over the next two years, causing a great deal of damage to his heart.

"I ended up having about five and a half stints just to keep my arteries open, and it was getting so bad that my arteries were getting as big as something you would find in your leg," Haahr said. "It was getting pretty serious, and around 1995 they told us I would need a heart transplant. That caught us off-guard."

After receiving the news, Haahr went on a heart transplant list, and had to wait patiently until February 12, 1999, when he received a call on his cell phone saying a new heart was waiting for him in Iowa City.

Mother Nature nearly prevented him from receiving the valuable organ that afternoon.

"We were driving home when the call came, and when we pulled into a rest area north of Ames, we couldn't get out of that to get across the interstate because of a snowstorm," Haahr said. "They were in the process of shutting the interstate down, and the hospital wanted us there in four to five hours to get the heart in. We were in trouble.

"But, after a while we were able to get on the interstate, and when we got down there they were tickled that I could walk in," Haahr continued. "They were giving high fives because I had walked in and could receive the transplant."

Haahr then waited four hours in the operating room before the surgery. Amazingly, he was awake and talking back in his room within 17 hours, a quick timetable for such an strenuous procedure.

He then had to take a crash course in pharmacology, as he was handed a book detailing the 46 pills he would have to consume in the days following his surgery.

"They gave me a list of all the 46 pills I had to take, and they said I couldn't get out of the hospital until I learned the pills and what they do," Haahr said. "I thought I was there for life."

Haahr proved to be a quick learner, and left the hospital soon after to return to Newell and lead a normal life.

After a nearly 15-year ordeal which included 78 trips back and forth to the hospital totaling 16,000 miles, Haahr is very much alive today, and is thankful he was able to receive the donated organ.

"It's given me a second chance at life," Haahr said. "I'm very, very grateful for that."

* Deb Williams considers herself to be lucky in more ways than one.

While the rural Storm Lake resident feels blessed to have received a healthy new kidney seven years ago, she also feels fortunate to have had the kidney be the organ that stopped working for her many years ago.

"I truthfully consider a kidney transplant to be a cakewalk compared to what other people have to go through," Williams said. "It's not easy, but you can live without a kidney. There's dialysis for that. You can't live without a liver, pancreas, heart, or other organs."

When Williams was 19, doctors told her she had inherited polycystic kidney disease, an ailment in which benign lesions containing waterlike fluid invade the kidneys, causing a loss in the organ's ability to eliminate waste from the body.

If left untreated, the waste can build to a toxic level called uremia, and this has a detrimental impact on the entire body, including the kidneys.

The disorder, which has no known treatment today, is caused by an abnormal gene which runs in families, and it affects between 1 in 400 and 1 in 1,000 Americans today.

Over half of those afflicted with polycystic kidney disease will have kidney failure by age 60.

In Williams' case, it took a little over half that time for her kidneys to give out.

"Mine had manifested itself in my body much, much earlier than what is usual," Williams said. "I had to go on a special diet, and I was told to drink lots of fluids with no alcohol and to get 10 hours of sleep every night. I was also told I would have to go on dialysis and eventually get a kidney transplant. As a 19-year-old, it wasn't what I wanted to hear or prepared to hear. I wasn't emotionally mature to accept that gracefully at that age."

In 1991, the doctors' predictions came true for Williams, as she had to go on a dialysis machine, a device which artificially pumps toxins out of the body for the kidneys.

Williams spent nearly two and a half years on dialysis, and then received news there would be a kidney waiting for her in Iowa City.

After making the five-hour drive down to the hospital with her family, word came that the kidney had too much cholesterol in it and could not be used.

William was crushed.

"After removing the kidneys they found out that they would not have functioned correctly for any length of time," Williams said. "It was tough when they sent me home after that."

After waiting a little longer, a good set of child-sized kidneys was located, and Williams was able to have the transplant she needed on June 15, 1994.

She still had several hurdles to overcome.

A week after the surgery, one of the kidneys lost its blood supply and had to be removed. The remaining kidney then went into a stage of rejection, and Williams anxiously waited for the next 10 days to see whether the kidney would rebound or regress.

Finally, on July 1, she was told to quit dialysis and go back home, a decision which left William both thrilled and frightened at the same time.

"I was overjoyed to go home and see my family, but I was also very fearful," Williams said. "What if something happened at home? Would I know? Would I catch it in time? With all I had been through I had a very real fear of losing the kidney, going back to the hospital and going back to square one."

Fortunately for Williams, the kidney began to grow, and, with the help of anti-rejection medication, is leading a healthy life today.

She said she considers her new kidney a blessing from above, and hopes she will be able to use the gift for many more years.

"Hopefully I'm here for a long time to come," Williams said. "Thanks to someone who had a tremendous amount of courage and strength to make a very difficult decision in a time of huge crisis, I'm here. I thank God every day for that gift."

* All Vernon Bocherding wanted to do on that snowy day back in 1970 was to go sledding. Little did he know the planned afternoon of fun would eventually lead him to an operating table in Phoenix waiting for a new liver.

A sledding accident that day 31 years ago was serious enough for Bocherding to enter the hospital, and a contaminated blood transfusion infected him with Hepatitis C.

The virus did not fully attack Bocherding until 1991, when it started to cause cirrhosis of the liver, and by 1994, the organ had shrunk from the normal four-pound size to only three pounds.

Bocherding had already been on the national transplant waiting list for the past year, and he was then upgraded to the active list at the beginning of 1994.

After deteriorating to a point where the doctors said he might have two weeks to live, Bocherding was able to undergo transplant surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix on August 24, 1994.

"It was an 11-hour operation, and I used 55 pints of blood and recycled 22 of my own during the procedure," Bocherding said. "I was in the hospital for 14 days, but with today's technology, patients only have to be in for five days. It's incredible."

Bocherding has used much of his post-transplant life to focus attention on organ donation and the many lives it can save. He has given speeches across the country about the shortage of organs able to be donated, and parlays his passion about the subject to his audiences.

"Over 50 people can benefit from one person," Bocherding said. "There are over 76,000 people waiting for life-saving organs in this country today, and about 16 people on that list die every day because there aren't enough organs for them to receive."

He also discounted several myths about the organ donation process, including the widely-held belief that wealth plays a factor in determining who receives the vital organs.

"There was a woman from Saudi Arabia there at the same time I was who also needed a liver, and she flew in on her own private jet with about 30 of her entourage," Bocherding said. "I received a liver before her. If the amount of money one has would matter, she could have had 10 livers before I would have received one. Money does not matter with organ donation."

Bocherding said the reason he is alive today is because another person talked about the subject with their families before they died, and he emphasized the need for people in attendance to discuss the matter with their immediate families.

"If I leave you with nothing else, I hope you at least go home and talk about this with your family and next-of-kin," Bocherding said. "It's too important not to talk about."

* In terms of money, the transplants have proved to be costly for all three of the recipients. Bocherding's anti-rejection medicine costs $400 a month, Williams' expenses total $1,000 every month and Haahr spends $2,300 every month for his medication.

In terms of life, however, the transplants have been invaluable.

They have allowed the trio to spend quality years of life with family and friends, see their children and grandchildren grow up, and enjoy new experiences every day.

Bocherding said no price tag can be put on those moments.

"When it comes to life, you throw the dollars out the window," Bocherding said. "Life's too important for that."



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