A Second Chance at Life
March 25th, 2018 by Lori Russell

Chris Cooke, center, at his wedding in Stellenbosch, South Africa, with his father, Howard; grandmother, Eleanor; wife, Michelle; and mother, Liz.
Photo by Michelle Joubert-Martin

Son repays his mother with the gift of a liver transplant

In 2012, Chris Cooke—now of Prosser, Washington—restored life to the woman who gave him his.

His mother, Liz Cooke, was in liver failure and needed a transplant.

He was a willing donor.

According to the World Health Organization’s Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation, nearly 127,000 organs were transplanted worldwide in 2015, the latest year statistics are available.

In the U.S., about 115,000 men, women and children are waiting for a lifesaving transplant because of a disease, trauma or birth defect that is causing one or more of their organs to fail. Every 10 minutes, another person is added to the national transplant waiting list. Unfortunately, 22 people die each day because the organs they need are not donated in time.

Growing up on his family’s farm outside Lusaka, Zambia, in south central Africa, Chris remembers his mother as a strong, busy person—a woman who ran multiple businesses and a working farm while raising three boys.

Slowly, over the years, Liz’s health and energy declined.

Doctors in Zambia and South Africa were unable to determine the cause of her symptoms.

“When you come from a close-knit family and see the core of the family unit degrade over a prolonged period of time, it is one of the worst tortures a family can endure,” Chris says. “Watching boundless energy slowly drain from a loved one by some pathetic disease that you cannot do anything about makes you feel helpless and frustrated.”

During a medical appointment for another ailment, a doctor noted the whites of Liz’s eyes had turned yellow—a sign of liver failure. At age 52, she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis. The hereditary disease is found in people of Dutch descent and Afrikaners—like Liz—from South Africa.

With limited medical options in Zambia and South Africa, Liz’s doctor referred her to one of the world’s leading liver transplant surgeons outside Delhi, India. Her entire family underwent testing to determine if any could be a living donor.

Chris was the best match.

“I would like to think that the experience brought my mum and I closer for sure,” says Chris, now 32.

He was living in South Africa at the time. Two years ago, he moved to his wife’s hometown of Prosser, Washington. He works at Benton Rural Electric Association, recently transferring from the cooperative’s internet company to the engineering department, where he is a staking technician.

“Stating that our family is very close would be an understatement,” Chris says. “We have always put each other first above all else, and any one of us would have done the same, no questions asked. I just happened to be the lucky one.”
Liz, who had become frail and fragile prior to the transplant, began to improve almost immediately after the surgery.

“The first thing we noticed was her eyes had turned white,” says Chris. “Her jaundice yellow color returned to normal, and her appetite and energy returned.”

Chris remembers his mother laughing while holding her side despite the stitches, staples and pain from the surgery.

“She was just eternally grateful to everyone for this new lease on life,” says Chris. “I never knew anything about a liver until this whole ordeal. I was fascinated to know that a portion of a liver—the smaller of the two lobes—could be used to save someone else’s life.”

Today, Liz, 57, is running the family farm and a thriving company, Sunshine Kitchen, where she makes and delivers homemade fresh meals to businesses, schools and the U.S. Embassy in Zambia. She rises at 4:30 a.m. to bake bread for her customers and is on the go until 6:30 p.m., when she returns home.

“Donating half my liver to my mum is hands down my greatest achievement,” says Chris. “Saving the life of the person that gave me life is an accomplishment I honor. How fortunate we were to have this opportunity to save her.”

An Anonymous Gift
Ella Hogan of The Dalles, Oregon, owes her second chance at life to a kidney donor she never met.

In March 2017, Ella became the 1,327th patient to receive a kidney transplant at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland.

Ella learned her kidneys were failing due to Type 2 diabetes in 2012. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the most common causes of end-stage kidney disease in the U.S.

With her two brothers and her husband, Ed, excluded from being living kidney donors due to health issues, Ella’s name was added to the national kidney transplant list in February 2013.

The hope was finding a match with a deceased donor.

In 1984, the National Organ Transplant Act established the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network—a national system to guarantee fairness in the allocation of organs for transplant. The United Network for Organ Sharing operates the OPTN, which maintains a database of all people in the U.S. waiting for kidney, heart, liver, lung, intestine, pancreas and multiple-organ transplants and helps coordinate organ placement.

The waiting list is more like a pool of patients than a numbered list. Organs from deceased donors are matched to transplant candidates based on blood and tissue typing, medical need, time on the waiting list, geographical location and other factors. More than 80 percent of patients on the national waiting list are in need of a kidney transplant. The average wait is three to five years.

While Ella waited for a transplant, her life revolved around trips to the dialysis center. Three times a week, her blood was pumped out of her body to an artificial kidney machine, which cleaned the blood and returned it to her body.

Legally blind from diabetes, Ella depended on Ed to drive her to and from her appointments. She often suffered bouts of low blood pressure and severe cramping during the procedures, which left her exhausted in the days that followed.

More than four years after beginning dialysis, a donor kidney became available for Ella.

“I got the call on a Tuesday and had surgery on Thursday,” she says. “Even after surgery I kept asking, ‘Did they put it in?’ I couldn’t comprehend it.”

A year after her transplant, Ella, 63, walks 2 miles a day on her treadmill and is a greeter at her church. She took a trip to Hawaii to visit family—something she could not do before the transplant.

Ella must take antirejection medication and manage her health the rest of her life, but sums up what it is like to be off dialysis in one word: freedom.

“I was hooked up three and a half hours a day, three days a week,” she says. “For four years, I considered it my job. It tied my whole life up.”

In 2017, more than 34,700 organ transplants brought renewed life to patients across the U.S. More than four of five donations come from deceased donors.

While Ella does not know the identity of her donor, her transplant center was able to forward the thank you note she wrote to the family, expressing her appreciation that “I’m living a better life than I ever would have before.”

Donor Encourages Others
Kristie Lemmon, executive director of the Alaska Kidney Patients Association in Anchorage, has a personal interest in kidney donation.

She became an organ donor 25 years ago.

The nonprofit organization she now heads provides support, education and advocacy for kidney patients and their families, including free kidney screenings for high-risk Alaskans and workshops for living kidney donor and transplant candidates.

About 6,000 people in the U.S. acted as live organ donors in 2017, donating a kidney, a lung, or a portion of their liver, pancreas or intestine.

Thanks to improvements in medications, living donors no longer are limited to immediate family. A spouse, friend, in-law or stranger can also donate.

Living with one kidney has not slowed her down, Kristie says, noting, “I can do almost anything I want. I pay attention to my kidney function. It’s my responsibility.”
She encourages those considering becoming living donors to do their research.

“Take time to think about it and get educated about it,” Kristie says. “You can donate even if you are 50 or 60. It depends on your health. Don’t rule yourself out. Get tested.”