Organs needed: You could save a life
ART: RENEE TANNER/NEWS-REVIEW (ART: RENEE TANNER/NEWS-REVIEW / April 19, 2013)
Tina, 32, and her husband Mike, 31, have been together for 12 years. The Boyne City couple has three children -- sons, Tristan, 5, and Griffin, 8 months, and a daughter, Piper, 4.
"Mike and I are best friends and our kids are amazing," she says.
"We're just normal, hard working people -- we work, pay taxes and recycle. But like most Americans we live paycheck to paycheck and work hard to make ends meet."
But now, making ends meet is even more difficult. And the Steads are looking to the future, hopeful, but unsure of what is to come.
Mike needs a new heart.
In January, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He's hoping to get a spot on the heart transplant list, and in the meantime, he's unable to work and Tina must stay home to care for him and their children.
"Mike is one of those people that never gets sick," Stead said.
"Back in December, he wasn't feeling well. Both he and our oldest son were sick and tested positive for the flu and Mike just never really recovered."
Mike tried to fight through, continuing to go to work as a marine mechanic. But the illness just became too much.
On Jan. 24, Tina got a call that Mike was being taken to the hospital by ambulance.
There, he was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia, his lungs completely full of fluid.
"They pumped him full of fluids and were able to see that his heart was working at just 15 percent and had heart failure," Stead recalled. "It was the pneumonia that saved his life."
Doctors told Stead that while Mike was a hard worker -- physically active with chores such as chopping wood and shoveling snow -- that was the extent of his exercise. Because of this, Mike didn't know what it really felt like to run on empty, why he never felt his heart wasn't functioning properly.
"There were other warning signs we missed, too," Stead said. "Mike's fingernails have extreme white patches. There were some other things that you think back on and you realize they were missed symptoms."
Stead was transferred to the intensive care unit and was on life support for eight days. While there, he also suffered a stroke, and Tina didn't know if her husband was going to make it.
"In an instant, our life changed" she said. "I didn't know what I was going to do. It's hard to think about."
After two weeks at McLaren Northern Michigan, Mike returned home after receiving a pacemaker and being put on a very restrictive fluid and sodium diet.
Now they wait.
Ashley Shepherd, 20, has a 14-inch scar down the middle of her chest. Shepherd, a 2010 Petoskey graduate, underwent a heart transplant in December and is still recovering in the Detroit area, close to her doctors.
Like Mike Stead, Shepherd's congestive heart failure diagnosis began with a trip to the emergency room.
Two years ago, Shepherd was working one Saturday night at the Noggin Room inside Stafford's Perry Hotel. Not long after her shift started, she began to feel light-headed and extremely exhausted.
Later that night, she got in bed and began coughing up blood. She panicked and went to the emergency room.
"They thought I had pneumonia and sent me home with antibiotics. But it didn't clear up, so I went back two days later," Shepherd said.
Doctors found that the antibiotics had cleared fluid around her heart, and a cardiologist was called in. Shepherd was told she wasn't going home. She had congestive heart failure at the age of 17.
In the months that followed, Shepherd had no energy. She became frustrated because while she was so young, she felt nothing like a 17-year-old.
Then, in November 2012, Shepherd found out she was getting a new heart. She was at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor after being put on a survival flight.
"At this point, I had less than 10 percent heart function. I didn't know I was that sick," Shepherd said.
"It was the most agonizing thing. It was scary," she added. "Then a week and a half later, they came in and said, 'We have a heart.'"
Organ donation saves lives
According to Gift of Life Michigan, the state has more than 3 million registered donors.
In 2012, Michigan's 261 organ donors resulted in 777 organs transplanted. However, as of March 1, 2013, there are more than 3,117 patients waiting on a transplant. Of those awaiting, 2,538 are in need of a kidney, 332 are waiting on a liver and 78 are awaiting a heart transplant.
Out of Michigan's 83 counties, Emmet County has the largest percentage of registered organ, eye and tissue donors in the state with 97 percent registered donors.
Charlevoix County has 76 percent of residents listed as donors, followed by Otsego at 55 percent and Antrim at 49 percent.
"Organ donation saves lives, simple as that. And what a legacy to leave," said Betsy Miner-Swartz, communications specialist with Gift of Life Michigan. "Most people only have one chance in their lifetimes to be a hero and that's through organ donation, which makes it possible to save the lives of up to eight very sick people.
Many of those people have weeks, days, sometimes just hours to live. It doesn't get any better than that."
Each organ donor can save up to eight lives, while tissue donors can improve the lives of up to 50 people.
"People often rule themselves out medically and they really shouldn't," Miner-Swartz said. "We tell people that if they want to be an organ donor, they really should just sign up because doctors evaluate every single potential donor medically at the time of donation. If you should be ruled out, you will be then. The criteria changes all the time so medical issues that are considered a rule out now might not be in, say 5 or 10 or 25 years."
Miner-Swartz added that diabetes does not rule out prospective donors. While having diabetes most likely means that patient's kidneys or pancreas will be ruled out, his or her lungs or heart could be healthy enough to save lives.
Over the last decade, nearly 10,000 Michigan patients have received a life-saving organ transplant, and on average, 17 Michigan patients receive an organ transplant each week. There is no age limit for donation and donation doesn't cost the donor a penny.
A rewarding sacrifice
In 2011, Crystal Teall, 40, a mother of three and Alanson graduate, learned that a friend's father, Amnon Bishari, 70, was suffering from kidney failure, brought on by diabetes.
"I had heard so many stories about how this man would give and help complete strangers," Teall, who now lives in Florida, said.
"Because of the family history of diabetes, none of the family members could donate. Other than the diabetes, my recipient was in excellent health."
Teall found out she and Bishari had the same blood type and began researching the risks and recovery process with her three daughters. Together, they all agreed that Teall should find out if she could be the donor. After some tests, it was determined Teall and Bishari were an excellent match.
"I went through the process of a very thorough physical to make sure that I didn't have any health conditions that would put me in jeopardy during the surgery. Once I was cleared, the surgery was scheduled immediately and was performed within a month."
The surgery, which took place on Jan. 11, 2012, was a success. Teall took three weeks off of work to recover, and said after the first couple days, the pain was minimal.
"I was tired and needed small naps for the first six weeks," she said. "My remaining kidney was already giving me more than 70 percent function within the first six months. Now I am at the top of the donor list should something happen and I need a kidney transplant."
Teall did not pay a dime during the process, other than a check-up she needed before the surgery. Bishari's insurance covered his costs.
A year later, Teall's scars are small and barely noticeable. She and Bishari are both enjoying the gift of life.
"The best thing is seeing Amnon regain his natural skin color, be able to go on vacations with his family, see him exercise and just know that he is not ill or fatigued all of the time from dialysis," she said.
At the Stead home, the family's days are filled with doctor's appointments, meetings and home visits.
Mike wears a shock vest that monitors his heart 24/7 and makes sure he remains stable, given that he is at great risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
Tina is on unpaid leave of absence from work since she can't leave him and must take him to appointments.
"Everyday bills keep rolling in," Tina said. "We have applied to the Department of Human Services, Social Security and have visited local food banks and checked for local resources, which at this time of year are not very plentiful unfortunately as so many people are in need."
Mike, who doesn't know if he'll ever be able to work again, also can't drive or exert himself in any strenuous way. He can't even pick up 8-month-old Griffin.
The Steads' children are adjusting, but it's difficult. Tina says Piper, 4, is daddy's girl and doesn't quite understand, but knows something is wrong. Tristan has suffered the most, confused as to why his dad can't go sledding or play outside with him.
"Tristan sees his dad's role is changing," Tina explained. "He knows daddy can't wrestle with him anymore and has had some tough times at school."
"He came home one day and said, 'Someone told me my dad is going to die,'" Tina added. "I just explain to him, 'Pieces in daddy's heart don't fit right anymore and we're trying to get him better.'"
"The crazy thing is, he feels fine and mentally he's fine. He's bored. He wants to go back to work. He wants to pick up our son. He wants to go out and play with the kids."
"It makes our lives hard because say I run out of eggs when I'm cooking, I can't just run out and get them because I can't leave him home and I can't send him out. And I don't want to pack up the whole family just to make a quick trip to the store."
On Tuesday, April 23, the Steads will travel to Grand Rapids where Mike will have a consultation to find out if he'll be put on the list for a heart transplant.
"We're just waiting," Tina said.
"It was like one minute our life was great, and the next -- I don't like to think like this, but your life can change so quickly."
The Steads have setup a website to collect donations to help with their living and medical expenses. Go to www.fundrazr.com and search for "Mike Stead."
The gift of life can change you
"If I had to choose one word to describe my recovery I would choose, 'unpredictable,'" Shepherd said. "I wouldn't say it has been worse or better than I expected but I can say I was not prepared for the past four months."
Shepherd is slowly getting her life back. She tries to get regular exercise and plans to continue her college education, yet she has to be careful not to get sick so she wears a mask in most public places. She undergoes biopsies each month to make sure her body doesn't show signs of rejection.
In addition to the 14-inch scar down her chest, she has a 6-inch scar from where a pacemaker was put in and three holes in her chest where holes were put to drain fluids.
She says she's lucky.
"It is a complete lifestyle change," she said. "I celebrated four months post transplant on April 2. I am recovering well with slight bumps in the road occasionally. Every time I think I'm getting the hang of it, life throws me a curve ball. This is only the beginning though and I'm anxious for my future."
Shepherd has been on the donor registry since she received her driver's license. She said receiving a life saving organ has only made her views stronger and more passionate.
"It made me realize how quick one's life can completely change and put their fate in a stranger's hands. It's disappointing to look at the statistics of individuals that aren't donors compared to the significant need for organs. As someone who has sat in a hospital bed awaiting an organ that could have never came, it's hard for me to comprehend anyone not joining the registry."
Shepherd now volunteers with Gift of Life. In her role, she educates people about the need for organ donation. She also works to correct many myths attached to the process.
"My hope is that by putting a face and story to organ donation, it will allow others to see how big of a miracle checking that box, can be," Shepherd said.
"Unfortunately, it's hard for some people to fully understand the importance of organ donation until it hits them or their family directly. I'm so incredibly grateful for my second chance at life, advocating for such a great cause is the least I can do."
Organ donation facts
— Each organ donor can save up to eight lives. Each tissue donor can improve the lives of up to 50 people.
— Nearly 10,000 Michigan patients have received a life-saving organ transplant in the last 10 years.
— Cornea transplants have been successful for more than 100 years and organ transplants have worked for more than 50.
— On average, 17 Michigan patients receive an organ transplant each week.
— There is no age limit for donation. People in their 90s have been able to donate organs.
— Donation doesn’t cost the donor or the donor’s family anything.
— In 2011, 269 organ donors provided 792 organs to waiting recipients in Michigan. Organ donors in 2011 and 2010, respectively: 289 and 288.
To learn more about organ donation or to register to become a donor, visit www.giftoflifemichigan.org.
— Statistics from Gift of Life Michigan
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