I believe in serendipity. Over and over again, I turn a corner, open a door, answer the phone and something unexpected appears in my life.
A short while ago, I received a message from a fellow St. Mary alumnus about a column idea. It was from Mary Ellen Bell, a longtime Royal Oak resident and teacher at Lamphere High School. I've known the Bell family forever—since they lived on West Street, adjacent to St. Mary's of Royal Oak.
Mary Ellen's message asked if I had ever thought about writing a column about organ transplants. For Mary Ellen, it was personal, because her husband Randy had very recently been the recipient of liver and kidney transplant.
"It's a miracle. Three weeks ago, my husband was edging closer and closer to death every day. Now he's home and feeling fantastic. The day after the transplant he looked better than he has in years and every day is now a day to look forward to instead of the dread of wondering if was going to be his last day.
We both are extremely grateful to Randy's donor and the donor's family and the people at Gift of Life for the work they do to make donor transplants possible. Our lives have changed from quiet desperation to giddy hopefulness for a life with a future together. How can you ask for better gift than that?"
The one condition
Mary Ellen's husband, Randy Smith was a robust, healthy guy when they met on vacation in Gladwin. He was worked for the City of Plymouth, was a veteran coach of youth softball, worked with the Special Olympics and was a skilled bowler recording numerous perfect 300 games.
When they were married in October of 2007, Mary Ellen had one condition: that Randy get a physical, because he had never had one and if you know Mary Ellen, or any of the Bell women for that matter, they have a way of getting what they want.
Randy had the physical just before they left for a northern Michigan winter vacation. On Dec. 29, the vacation was interrupted by a call from his doctor. He needed to return home immediately. The physical results were alarming and he needed immediate hospitalization. The upshot was Randy was diagnosed with serious liver disease, which was a shock, because Randy rarely drank and did not feel ill. What he learned is that liver disease does not have to be caused by drinking and that the reputation of the “silent killer” was well earned as the disease could progress without symptoms, in some cases.
So, just a couple of months after marrying, Randy and Mary Ellen began to face the impact of the sudden and rapid deterioration of his health. Over the next three years Randy's health went from bad to worse and in October of 2010 he was placed on the transplant list for a kidney.
The transplant list is a bad news/good news proposition. You need to be sick enough that you need a transplant, but the transplant can save your life. It gets more intricate than that once you're on the list. A complex set of guidelines move your name higher on the list. One way to look at it is that you need to be very ill to move up, but well enough to be a good candidate for a successful transplant.
Finally, there is the extraordinary issue of timing. In order to receive a transplant there must be donor. In order for there to be a donor, someone must die. In one hospital there are tears of grief for the loss of a loved one and in another hospital there are tears of joy for the life that has been saved. The lives of two families are indelibly impacted forever by the ultimate act of generosity. In death, life is delivered.
But these are just words. There are real people that wake up every morning affected by the gift, like Randy Smith and his wife, Mary Ellen, it's almost unexplainable how blessed they feel.
Randy told me, "I can't tell you how grateful I am to my donor. It's such a unique feeling to wake up every morning, feeling better and better every day and know that because of my donor, I have a life ahead of me. It's hard to describe how very fortunate I am. Just as I was getting weaker everything fell into place and when they told me I was getting a new liver and a kidney, I couldn't believe it. But I believe it now!"
Mary Ellen can see her husband progressing daily and is already assembling a honey-do list for her husband and preparing with anticipation to become grandparents this winter with a hale husband.
"We've already written our letters to the donor’s family and if it's what they want, we are ready to tell them how they changed our lives. We are so thankful to our donor, the family and the wonderful Gift of Life organization that makes it all come together. Like I said, it's a true miracle for us."
You can tell by Mary Ellen's voice that she means every word.
As eventful, or in Mary Ellen's words, miraculous the entire transplant experience has been, it occurs because a lot of very committed people make it happen. The professional staffs at hospitals are crucial to the successful transplants throughout Michigan and the entire country. In our state, the non-profit Gift of Life organization is integral in coordinating the entire process. What they do is amazing and important.
More on Tuesday
Tomorrow, we'll talk with Kandace Novotny, a Royal Oak resident and Gift of Life hospital services associate about the group’s work. Kandy introduced me to Lynn Parker, who shared the powerful story of how her son became a donor and the lives his organs saved and impacted, along with her own.
It is a privilege to meet and write about people who are just like you and me, but have faced life's most difficult moments and still there is a light of generosity and courage surrounding them.
If we can get readers who will consider signing up for organ donation, their light will glow even larger. More on that tomorrow, in a special second installment of the column, but the link below to the Gift of Life is a place to get started.
It only takes a minute to give: go to the Donor tab on the Gift of Life website. The link is: www.giftoflifemichigan.org.
Columnist Gerry Boylan is the author of the novel Getting There and the short story collection Gerry Tales. Both books can be found on Amazon.com and at the Yellow Door in Berkley, MI. Gerry's website is: www.gerryboylan.com