REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK By ELY BROWN and DAN LIEBERMAN (@danliebs)
July 5, 2013
It was just more than a year ago when we touched down in Rochester, Minn. to do a story on the organ transplant unit at Mayo Clinic. Before we could even check our camera mics, we got word that another plane had just landed carrying a red cooler containing a liver for 60-year-old Gordon Karels.
It’s the moment more than 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for. Eighteen of them die each day waiting for their organ transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Watch the full story on “Nightline” tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET.
For some, getting a new, healthy organ can happen overnight. For most, the wait is much longer. Sometimes it can take years.
With the cooler in the doctor’s hand, we rushed to the hospital to film its arrival and subsequent journey through the winding corridors to the operating room. After his successful transplant and rapid recovery in the days to follow, Karels and his family celebrated.
Also in the hospital was Jessica Danielson, then 30 years old, who was waiting for a heart and liver. At age 19, Danielson was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a rare condition that leads to congestive heart failure and damages the liver.
Doctors told her that she would either have a heart attack or die from the disease within three years. More than 10 years later, Danielson was still waiting for her double transplant.
Danielson was attached to her IV pump at all times. She had nicknamed it Wilson.
“He’s keeping me going,” she said last April. “He’s pumping medications directly into my heart.”
Back then, Danielson said, “I don’t think death is in the cards for me, I have way too much to do and I’m doing everything I can to stay strong.”
Six weeks later, Danielson finally got a new heart and liver. Her recovery took some months living in Rochester, Minn., at the Gift of Life House, where she had to get used to her new organs.
“I remember the first time I went up an incline in Rochester, and I got to the top of it and teared up,” she said. “I’m still in awe of it every day. Carrying the laundry up the stairs — before it was the hardest thing to do. Now it’s just so easy. … I’m like a normal person now.”
“It’s a very cool feeling — hard to explain to someone who has always had a healthy heart — but it’s like magic,” Danielson said. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
Three months after her surgery, Jessica finally went home to Duluth, Minn. “Nightline” caught up with her there last week, shortly after her one-year anniversary of getting her new organs.
Danielson’s thicker, curlier hair and healthy coloring made it hard to believe she was the same person we met a year ago in a hospital gown.
Back then, she was pushing her IV pump down the hallway. Last week, she was pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store buying some food for a barbecue with friends.
“I should buy guacamole. It’s my favorite thing!” she said.
Danielson, now 31, said she’s hardly the same person she was before her double transplant.
“You definitely have a different appreciation for life,” she said. “Life is fragile. … I’ve gotten really good about not freaking out about the small stuff.”
While waiting for her transplant, Danielson wondered when or even if she would be able to get on with her life. Today, she’s back at work at the local ABC affiliate, WDIO, in Duluth, and has a new boyfriend.
“She went through something that would have killed most people, and she doesn’t seem to think she’s special, but she is,” her boyfriend said. “You look around the world, and there’s a lot of bad things out there. She reminds you that it’s not all bad.”
A year ago, Danielson feared the day her future donor would meet a tragic end, even though it might give her life.
“You definitely go through a period of mourning for this stranger, for this angel who came into your life and saved you,” she said.
There isn’t a day that passes without thinking about her donor, she said.
“I don’t know who she was or where she was from or how she ended up becoming my donor, but I still manage to think about her every day, because without her and her family I would not be here right now,” she said. “I’m made of two people now.”
As for the others we met at Mayo Clinic, Gordon Karels is doing well, back at the driving range and vacationing with his family this summer in the Black Hills. Colter Meinert was nine years old when he got his second heart transplant while we were reporting our initial story. A year later, he is off his IV medication, has completed third grade and, after a summer of camping, is looking forward to fourth. Charles Long received his new heart in April last year, and Richard Loeffler got his in July. Joey Gill, 21, got his kidneys the same day as Jessica got her organs, but from different donors. Penny Pearson improved enough to be discharged from Mayo, but she, like Barbara Carpenter, remains among the 118,000 Americans still waiting.