By: Alyssa Stepusin, Staff Writer
More than 60 liver transplant recipients gathered with their families and friends at the UNC Hospitals Hedrick Building on Saturday to celebrate their lives and honor their organ donors' families.
The eighth annual reunion was organized by the UNC Comprehensive Transplant Center, with liver transplant coordinator Emily Dolleschel leading the festivities.
As more than 200 attendees ate lunch and watched a photo slide show of fellow survivors, transplant recipients recalled their experiences.
Gail Clark, of Pelham, had a double transplant in 1994 because her body rejected the first liver. Clark was diagnosed with hepatitis when she was 26.
Even with her 66th birthday approaching, she's able to do more than ever before.
Deborah Stewart, a resident of Durham who worked at the UNC dental school, waited more than four years for a liver. Stewart's experience has been extensive. She went into a coma, from which she spent months rehabilitating, faced rejection of the liver by her body and recently learned she needed a new kidney.
But she remains positive.
"I wanted to be here to celebrate my life, and celebrate everyone else, whatever kind of transplant they have," Stewart said.
There was a sense of community among the transplant recipients, and noticeable signs of support from others in attendance.
Alexandra Terry, a 17-year-old from Henderson, was accompanied by her parents, four sisters and three friends. Terry was only 11 when her liver began to fail from a rare genetic illness, but she completed the entire transplant process in only 13 days.
Liver failure can stem from a number of illnesses, both genetic or from infection. The liver performs many tasks, including breaking down, creating, altering, storing and regulating various bodily substances.
Anthony Mason, who received a new liver in 2000, spoke at the event about his experiences from the past eight years. Mason frequently speaks to audiences about his transplant and how his life has been altered. Next month he will travel to Pittsburgh, Pa., to compete in the U.S. Transplant Games, an Olympic-style event where transplant recipients can compete in various sports.
As a finale of the meeting, transplant recipients wrote letters to their liver donors and attached them to balloons that they released outside.
UNC Hospitals has performed about 15 liver transplants this year and about 70 last year, Dolleschel said. The Transplant Center holds annual reunions for all types of organ transplant patients.
"It's important for the patients to see that everyone is well," Dolleschel said.
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