his extraordinary gift has allowed someone else to "raise hell" - and in such a positive way.
Twenty years ago, a donor liver gave nurse Heather Fisher a new lease on life, and she's still celebrating
On April 23, 1983, Heather Fisher, then a CCU nurse, was lying anesthetized on an operating room table at the University Hospital in London, Ontario. Her abdomen had been opened with a huge Y-shaped incision - like a giant Mercedes Benz logo.
Three of the previous four liver transplant patients had died. It was a cold, stormy night. Scant hours earlier, Bill Wall, her transplant surgeon, had almost dropped her new liver into the chilly water of the Toronto harbor. Eleven hours later, Heather awoke in the ICU.
"One of the first things I heard my parents say was, 'Look at her eyes, look at her eyes!''' The liver disease had made the whites of her eyes yellow for years. But when she woke up that day, they were white. Twenty years later, when she meets me for lunch on a chilly day in downtown Toronto, the whites of Heather's eyes are still brilliantly white.
Still a working nurse, she has become Canada's second longest-living liver transplant recipient. No Mountain Too High Jaundice entered Heather's life at age 14. Autoimmune chronic hepatitis - something the average physician never sees in an entire practicing career. Medications subdued it, but they didn't cure it. Fifteen years later, hepatic encephalopathy and gastrointestinal bleeding came to threaten her life. Then came the surgery that saved her. When the jaundice and confusion had cleared, and the giant incision had healed, Heather got on with proving that the family of the donor - a young man who had died on his motorcycle that stormy night - had made the right decision.
She was told that he had had a tattoo: Born to Raise Hell.
"YOU MAKE A LIVING BY WHAT YOU GET. YOU MAKE A LIFE BY WHAT YOU GIVE"
Heather saw that as a challenge. No mountain would be too high for her, no race too long, no task too hard. Six years later, two hearts and a liver were trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro. (Amongst themselves, transplant recipients often refer to themselves by their new life-giving organs.) Only a third of those that start that trek up Kilimanjaro make it to the top. At the top is a book in a box, beneath a rock. You have to take it out, dust it off, and sign your name. In that book now is Heather Fisher - first liver transplant recipient to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Heather's can-do attitude is not unusual among transplant recipients. Many actively celebrate their lives, and the lost lives of the donors and the generosity of the families who gave them that second chance. Between July 16 and July 24, 2005, thousands of livers and lungs, kidneys and hearts will meet in London, Ontario for the XV World Transplant Games.
Heather has been involved in the biennial World Transplant Games, and has been winning medals in speed walking and shot put, since 1989. Heather no longer wears skimpy running tops when she trains and competes, but she is not ashamed of her scars. As her niece said, "Auntie Heather, you have all kinds of belly buttons." A belly button is, after all, a sign of birth and rebirth.
A Life Made by Giving "I've met death and I've got past it," Heather says. "I no longer fear it. I've had bonus years. I do more in a year than many people do in a lifetime. I believe that if God - he or she, or whatever name you call him or her- wanted me to live, there must be a purpose." And for Heather, that purpose is to promote organ transplant awareness. She speaks locally, nationally and internationally to school groups, medical groups, and church groups, as well as to people awaiting transplants. As well Heather was, and still is, a traveler.
She is now a nurse clinician in the acute pain service at London Health Sciences Centre, in London, Ontario, but she volunteers in a former specialty, OR nursing, for the Children's Rainbow of Miracles. Volunteering is one of her ways of traveling and giving back. Teams of doctors and nurses go to places like Ecuador and Honduras to straighten twisted limbs, correct crooked smiles, and make scarred faces smile again. "It's the joy of my life! What (almost) tops the transplant is going to Third World countries and operating on children who have less than nothing." We finish lunch, and in the small flurry of confusion when the bill arrives, I end up with a scrap of paper from Heather's purse. On it is written, "You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give." What more can I say? And what would I say to the friends and family whose son, husband, brother, or buddy died and gave Heather what she was to-day? He would be proud! Proud to see how his extraordinary gift has allowed someone else to "raise hell" - and in such a positive way .
Re-print from 'Medhunters' Magazine Sprinng issue 2003. 8 Spring 2003 MEDHUNTERS magazine
Stephen Sullivan, MD (2003)