By NIKKI YOUNK
IRON MOUNTAIN - It doesn't take much effort to sign up to be an organ donor, but the benefits a donation can have for an organ recipient are enormous. Not only can organ transplants save recipients' lives, they can give recipients a whole new outlook on life.
Brad Nelson Photo
Veterans David Coleman, left, and Larry Brown discuss their organ transplant experiences at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center. Pictured at right is Kathleen Wahoviak, transplant coordinator for the VA.
A few years ago, Air Force veteran David Coleman of Iron Mountain was in desperate need of a new liver. He had liver failure and was suffering from hepatic encephalopathy, a condition that causes confusion due to toxins accumulating in the body.
"I didn't know who I was or where I was," said Coleman.
Navy veteran Larry Brown of Crystal Falls was in a similar situation. He was in and out of the hospital with chest pain and cardiac issues before he had his first heart attack in 2008.
After being put on a ventilator and a mechanical Heart Mate II, he was told he needed a new heart.
Both men turned to the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain for transplant services. Although the center does not have transplant services on site, it coordinates with VA transplant centers across the country.
Coleman waited seven and a half months for his new liver. He received his transplant on Feb. 10, 2010 in Pittsburgh.
"After waking up from the operation and taking three breaths, I knew that everything was different," said Coleman. "It's that immediate."
Brown waited more than two years for his new heart. Unfortunately, it was a period filled with difficulties.
For example, Brown was pulled off of the transplant list twice: once for 60 days when he was placed on a heart pump and once for three months when he had a stroke.
Then, he was scheduled twice for transplants that ended up being canceled. On one occasion, the donor heart turned out to be too big. On another occasion, the donor's family had second thoughts and decided against the donation.
"There were a lot of complications, it was just devastating," Brown admitted. "When I finally got it, my time was just about up."
He ultimately received a new heart on April 10, 2010 in Madison, Wis.
Like Coleman, Brown felt better right after the operation.
"The effects are pretty immediate," said Brown. "I'm three years out now, and it's like I never had a heart attack or transplant."
Due to their transplants, both men's lives have changed in more ways than one.
They must take good care of themselves by taking anti-rejection drugs, avoiding seemingly minor illnesses like the flu and the common cold, and attending follow-up appointments at the VA.
"It's not really an interference," Coleman clarified. "After a time, you incorporate it into your lifestyle and realize that 'this is my life now, these are the things I have to do.'"
Coleman has embraced the second chance at life that his new liver has given him.
"Without the transplant, I wouldn't be here," he said. "This is considered 'free time' now, it's more of life than I would have had."
In order to give back, Coleman decided to use his "free time" to help others. He is currently working on his bachelors degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Osh Kosh and plans to graduate in December.
Coleman already helps fellow veterans at the VA by being a resource on the organ transplant process. He feels that he can give patients a personal perspective on the experience that doctors cannot.
"I'm overcome with gratitude by how much people gave to me," Coleman added. "I'd like to give back to others."
Brown is also enjoying an active life. He now spends his time doing outdoor activities like fishing, walking, and snowmobiling.
Though both men's experiences are success stories, they each had to go through a long and thorough process to become transplant recipients.
Kathleen Wahoviak, transplant coordinator for the VA, explained the procedures that VA patients must go through in order to receive an organ transplant.
Each year, about 1,800 enrolled and medically-eligible veterans nationwide undergo transplant evaluations. Only 450 end up receiving solid organ or bone marrow transplants each year.
Evaluations include medical tests, lab work, social and mental health consults, and other screening exams that take into consideration the severity of the condition, psychological state, and rate of survivability. Veterans also need an adequate caregiver available.
All information is then sent to Washington, D.C. for review.
If approved, the veteran will go to an in-house evaluation at the actual transplant center, where he or she goes through a week of evaluations and tests. If the transplant center approves, the veteran is listed on the United Network for Organ Sharing list.
Travel arrangements are then made with a medical flight company. The veteran only has six hours to get to the transplant center when an organ becomes available.
Wahoviak pointed out that even if the veteran is approved on each level, the wait for a matching organ can range from a few months to a few years.
"There has to be match for tissue and blood type, and not enough people donate," she said. "We encourage the public to go to www.giftoflifemichigan.org and sign up to be an organ donor. For Wisconsin, the website is www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/health/donatelife."
Nikki Younk's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.