Sunday, December 14, 2008

Think about signing those organ donor cards

Elaine GreschnerBy Valerie G. Barnes-Connell The La Ronge Northerner

In the season we traditionally think about gift giving, there’s varied ways of gift giving including thinking about signing your organ donor card.

Elaine Greschner (photo) knows about the importance of organ donors first hand.

Diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at two years, Greschner’s illness led eventually to the need for two double-lung transplants. Cystic Fibrosis attacks the lungs and the digestive system, which meant she has always had to take enzymes to assist with food digestion, Greschner said.

“My Mom had to do what we call thumping; I think it’s called chest percussions. It’s thumping back and forth to clear mucus because that’s what happens over the years; it hardens and causes scar tissue,” she said, adding she grew up in Beauval and travelled to Saskatoon annually for medical attention. Greschner chose a career in education teaching in the north in places such as La Loche before coming to La Ronge.

“I was able to teach until I was 34 … the day I quit teaching is the day I went on oxygen and a year later I was put on the transplant list,” she said, adding that was 1997 and she waited one-and-a-half years for a transplant.

With a choice of Edmonton or Winnipeg, Greschner said, she checked out all the ins and outs and chose Winnipeg. “They have an impressive team there, excellent doctors and nurses.”

In March 1999, Greschner underwent a double-lung transplant.

“Talk about a huge difference from how I felt before that … I felt like I had a new life so fast, so suddenly … I was on oxygen – pretty much felt like a 90-year-old lady I had no energy. It was even hard to eat.

The transplant lasted about nine months, in which time Greschner went kayaking off Vancouver Island and kept up an active lifestyle.

Rejection with transplants is always a concern, Greschner, who said, during that time she also contacted Cytomegalovirus (CMV), which is a common virus most people get at sometime in their lives.

“I think it was a combination of rejection and this CMV virus that caused the deterioration. Then I was lucky enough to get put on a waiting list again at the end of 1999. On New Years Eve 2001 we got the call (about) another set of lungs,” she said, adding she and her husband, Toby, were in La Ronge when the call came in.

With one-and-a-half hours to get ready, Greschner said, bags had to be packed and people phoned to let them know what was happening. For the first transplant Greschner spent three weeks in hospital, but that was reduced to two weeks for the second one because the “third week is training on medications and stuff,” but they had to stay in Winnipeg for another month.

“We had to go to the hospital every second day for adjustments and monitoring of medications. I was feeling very, very well so we had lot of time on the alternate days to explore and get our walks in because that’s the best thing for the new lungs – exercise.” With both surgeries the change in energy came quickly, Greschner said, but adding at first she woke up attached to “dozens and dozens of machines with tubes hooked in everywhere. When you see that it makes you so appreciative of what the human body can do on its own.”

Prior to both surgeries Greschner was on 100 per cent oxygen; she carried a portable tank with her wherever she went.

In the time in between the transplants particularly, Greschner tried to keep as active as possible, walking and kayaking whenever possible.

In fact, a call with transplant opportunity came while Greschner was on a kayaking trip to Vancouver Island and she was unable to get to Winnipeg.

“Sometimes fate happens for a reason … it turned out good, because I was told with that one I would have had to make a lot of compromised because it wasn’t a perfect match so it turned out good. But also it could have been my last chance at a set of lungs event thought it wouldn’t have been perfect. It was quite emotional. It worked out for the best.”

While the first transplant was not a perfect match, the second one turned out to be an “almost perfect match,” she said. “Now I’ve had the surgeries CF is no longer in my lungs, but I still have it in my digestion,” she said.

Although she has not been able to return to teaching, Greschner said, she has been able to live a “sort of normal” life; she remains busy walking daily and volunteering in the community.

But the challenges were not over for Greschner. In May she found a lump under her arm.

A side effect of the transplant is the risk of different forms of cancer, particularly those connected to the skin or lymphatic system, Greschner said.

“I will be forever grateful or I wouldn’t have known it was there otherwise … I was the first one in Saskatoon Health District to get Post Lung Transplant Lymphoma.”

Between July and Nov. 22, Greschner completed a round of Chemotherapy.

“I had a checkup half way through and the doctor said the tumors were responding; I am scheduled for annual testing but I don’t know when. I feel like I’m okay as long as there’s hope. I don’t really worry about this cancer,” Greschner said.

Greschner said it’s important people consider signing the organ donor card that comes with their driver’s licence, but stresses it’s important to discuss any decision with family members first.

Seven people benefited from the same donor she did, Greschner said.

“I know I signed my organ donor card … I obviously think it’s important and a worthwhile thing. So many people’s lives are saved. It’s a hard thing to talk about but if you just think about the lives that are saved,” she said speaking about the importance of organ donors. Greschner also expressed appreciation for the support and prayers of so many people.

And although she doesn’t know who the donors were that gave her a new lease on life, twice, of the last one she said, “(The donor) must have been an athlete.”

And before leaving hospital people who have received transplants have an opportunity to write to the family of the donor expressing their appreciation, Greschner said.

“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Sign Your Donor Card & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”

Register to be a donor in Ontario or Download Donor Cards from Trillium Gift of Life Network
For other Canadian provinces click here

In the United States, be sure to find out how to register in your state at or Download Donor Cards from OrganDonor.Gov

Your generosity can save up to eight lives with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants. One tissue donor can help up to 100 other people by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves

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