There are plenty of lessons we can take from last September. One of them is that tomorrow isn’t a guarantee.

Each day, 3,000 North Texans awake to this fact: they’re awaiting organ transplants. And while they’re waiting, 16 people die nationally every day, according to averages compiled by the Dallas-based Southwest Transplant Alliance.

This month, we’re telling the stories of three neighborhood families impacted by organ transplants.

While their stories aren’t a direct result of 9/11, the impact is similar: Every day for these families, whether recipients or donors, is a gift.

These neighbors have life today because of someone else’s death, and the organs they received are proof that at our most powerless, we may be our most powerful.

The Miracle Child / Dixey and Tary Arterburn never expected their second daughter would have to fight so hard to stay alive, or that they would have to fight the battle for her.

In August 1997, Libby Arterburn’s parents were told she had a cirrhotic liver and that she would have to be put on a transplant list immediately. In October 1997, Dixey had just returned from attending her mother’s funeral in New Orleans when word came in from Children’s Hospital that there was a liver on its way from Houston. Tary was in Hong Kong on business and missed the surgery.

“He was nuts,” Dixey says.

The family had celebrated Libby’s fourth birthday just days before.

“She had a year left if we hadn’t done it,” Dixey says.

After a 10-12 hour procedure, Libby’s body rejected the liver and, by Sunday, she was in a coma. Though she was put back at the top of the transplant list immediately, the situation looked dire.

“It was absolutely devastating. The whole world prayed for her,” says her mother.

But within 48 hours, a new liver was on its way, this one from a four-year-old California boy named Joseph, who had lost his life to a combination of illnesses.

“It was a miracle,” says Dixey, a refrain heard often from Libby’s mother. “It usually takes a week.”

By the time the second liver arrived in Dallas, Libby’s doctors were performing whole body transfusions on her because of her rare blood type. This time around, however, Libby’s body immediately accepted Joseph’s liver.

“You can’t thank somebody for saving your child’s life,” Dixey says. “If I was in a reverse situation, I would think some part of my child is still alive.”

Joseph’s mother, Stacy flew out to visit the Arterburns in Dallas for an emotional first meeting. According to Dixey, Stacy felt some closure about her decision to donate Joseph’s organs upon seeing Libby. But for Libby’s family, the situation may never involve that same sense of finality.

“I pray to God she never has another transplant, because I don’t think I can go through that again,” Dixey says.

Libby’s ten times better than I am,” she says. “When she came out of the hospital, she said: I wanna go back and see the knife. I wanna see the room. I wanna see everything. You’d never know Libby is sick. She has a high tolerance for pain.

“But you never know…you never know if everything is going to be okay,” Dixey says. “Every year is different.”

But every year is also a gift.

“We should all thank God. Libby is our miracle child. Even though she makes us crazy,” Dixey laughs, “because she doesn’t want to sit down, for one thing. She never sits down.”

A Little Heart Goes a Long Way / Sam Kesner has been many things throughout his life: the first person to land on the beach in France during a World War II invasion; a father; husband to this one and only sweetheart, Anne; an impoverished kid; and a successful businessman whose 51-year tenure at Solomon Smith Barney recently ended.

But as the survivor of a heart transplant at the age of 78, Kesner also is a medical marvel.

“I was way beyond the age where anyone would help me,” says Kesner, who suffered from congestive heart failure. “We talked to Baylor…they laughed. Medical City, Pritikin on the West Coast.”

“Medical City asked if he was joking,” Anne says.

“A friend from New York came down and said: I hate to tell you, but no one can talk to you because of your age.”

Although the only hard and fast rule in receiving an organ is that the candidate be in otherwise good health, patients past the age of 60 are generally not thought of as good candidates for heart transplants.

But, says Parr Silvestri, community education manager for Southwest Transplant Alliance: “The criteria for organ transplant recipients changes over time. Sam was a healthy 78. There are people who are 55 who are in such bad shape…it’s more about how healthy the person is.”

Sam and Anne weren’t ready to give up hope and, in 1997, they received their first ray of light. A friend, Dallas-based physician Lonnie Whiddon, called them about allowing Kesner to join a transplant list at Methodist Hospital.

“He said: It’s worth a try to put your name down. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a heart, though,” Kesner says.

Kesner passed all the initial tests that pronounced him in good enough shape to be placed on the list. But after a year, things were not looking promising.

“It was going downhill,” Anne says. “We just got on the list because it was our last resort, but we weren’t hopeful at his age.”

Many patients waiting for news that a suitable organ has been found are given a portable phone where they can always be reached. But no one passed a phone along to Kesner.

“We felt that if he wasn’t important enough to give a phone, then we would never hear from them,” Anne says.

But they did.

“I was slipping real fast, and I called one Saturday afternoon, and said, ‘I’m slipping.’ And they said, ‘We realize that. We know it’s just a matter of four or five days.’”

“They were very blunt with me, and I said, ‘Anything I can do?’ They said, ‘No. Just pray.’”

An hour and a half later, the Kensers received a call.

Dr. Whiddon had flown to Victoria, Texas, to see about a 23-year-old woman’s heart.

“We were so nervous, shaking and everything,” Kesner says. “I was too nervous to drive, so our daughter drove us.”

“He got so nervous, I thought he was going to have a heart attack in the car,” Anne says.

An hour later, Whiddon phoned the hospital to say they were going to “try something.”

What they tried for was a miracle.

“It’s an act of God,” Kesner says about the success of the transplant.

Kesner spent a few weeks in the ICU after showing initial signs of rejection, but was deemed healthy a few weeks later and sent home.

Not long after Kesner’s transplant, Methodist was forced to shut down its heart transplant department due to a lack of government funding.

But with a new chance at life and a history of philanthropy, Kesner and his wife wanted to make sure Methodist had a second chance as well.

The Sam and Anne Kesner Heart Center opened in September 1999.

A couple of years after the surgery, the Kesners met the donor’s mother, who said the only reason she had donated her daughter’s heart had been because of a passing conversation the two once had in a car.

“Everyone in our family is an organ donor now,” Anne says.

“I get up and pray every morning,” Kesner says. “I give thanks to God, and we’ve tried to show it in our actions.”

Though they’re Jewish, Anne and Sam have donated money throughout their lives to various denominations, simply because, “we don’t know what religion God is, and I’m not taking any chances,” he says.

And the donation has changed his life in more ways than one.

“I am the most blessed guy,” Kesner says. “That is the only girlfriend I have ever had my whole life, and we have four wonderful children with good marriages, and 10 grandchildren.

“For a poor, stupid Aggie who graduated at the bottom of my class at A&M and at Tech High School, to be where we are today is all an act of God.”

Fighting for Life / Most of us consider the possibility that, during a routine physical, our doctors might tell us something we don’t want to hear.

In 1986, Judy Ninman had such a doctor’s visit. Although she felt fine, elevated liver functions threw her doctors into action. A number of tests were run, eventually leading to a diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis: Ninman’s own body was attacking her liver.

For this wife and mother, learning to live with the disease meant waiting patiently for the day her doctors warned her would come: when she would be told she needed a liver transplant. It was, she says, a terrifying but valuable experience.

“Without a doubt, I got more out of the experience whan I was ever able to contribute,” Ninman says. “I learned about courage – real courage – faith, strength in the face of a life-threatening illness and the importance of never giving into the disease.”

In fact, Ninman learned to live with the disease so well that she says only close friends and family knew of her condition, and even they began to forget about it since she looked and felt fine.

“Over the years, I became immersed in organ donor awareness, fund raising for numerous transplant endeavors,” Ninman says, “all the while keeping my situation a secret; leading a normal life.”

But the disease finally caught up with her in 1999. That October, Ninman finally put her name on the transplant list, a decision that didn’t yield a result until summer 2001. By then, Ninman’s health was deteriorating quickly. Her condition had also been given a clearer, and more frightening, diagnosis: primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare and progressive liver disorder and the same disease that took the life of football great Walter Payton.

“I was plagued with maddening itching and severe muscle cramps,” Ninman says. “Plus, high levels of ammonia caused encephalopathy, which is a condition that renders you incoherent and crazy as a loon.”

By June 2001, Ninman had entered the hospital. Her kidneys had also begun to fail, so she was permanently placed in the intensive care unit. She would not leave any time soon.

“I remember very little of those days, and what I do remember has been told to me,” she says. “I think this was God’s way of protecting me.”

But on July 5, 2001, with only a few days of life left, doctors found a liver, that of a young man named Chris, and the transplant was successful. Recovery, however, has been difficult. Ninman suffered three seizures and a stroke in the first three days post-transplant, and has undergone four rejections in the year since she received the new liver.

“All things are possible through Christ who gives you strength,” says Ninman, who has returned to her business of designing couture clothes. She has also begun exercising again.

“Things have begun to even out a bit. There are still battles to fight, but it is a life filled with gratefulness and a new sense of awareness.”


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