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Pam Colley’s Story: A Liver Transplant Survivor’s Odyssey

Pam Colley’s Story: A Liver Transplant Survivor’s Odyssey

By Stacy Tintocalis, Freelance Writer

“After all these years, I still can’t talk about it without crying,” said Pam Colley of her liver transplant.

Pam’s journey began in 2001. She was a 51-year-old teacher in Willow Springs, and suddenly she didn’t have the energy to get her kindergarten class ready.

“I was fairly young and had no prior health issues except having children and a hysterectomy,” Pam said.

She went to doctor after doctor. Still, her lack of energy persisted.

Over the next four years, Pam had two stents put in, but they didn’t improve her energy levels. Then she drove to Springfield daily for blood transfusions. Yet again, her energy remained low.

In 2005, she finally discovered that her liver wasn’t functioning properly. She had NASH—nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.

The NASH diagnosis came as a shock. Risk factors for NASH include obesity, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Pam only weighed 110 pounds. She didn’t have any of the risk factors.

Suddenly, with the NASH diagnosis, Pam was told she needed a liver transplant.

“The doctor said I could get a transplant in about a year. It took a year and two weeks.”

Pam’s transplant needed to take place at Saint Louis University’s medical center, which meant she’d have to drive three hours to Saint Louis at a moment’s notice.

So began an uncomfortable waiting period as well as several false starts.

First there was the call to rush to Saint Louis, but the liver was from an older donor. Another time, she got the call to pack her bags, but Pam was too sick to leave for the hospital. Yet another time, the liver was too hard.

“The trauma on the family was horrible,” Pam said. “You don’t know if you’re going or when you’re going.”

Finally, she got the call on her husband’s birthday. “It was meant to be. The minute I entered the hospital, I felt totally at peace.”

The transplant was a success, and Pam eventually met other people who’d received organs from the same donor.

“After the transplant, you go back and stay near the hospital for a month,” Pam said. “And you go into the same waiting room, so you get to meet other people who survived because of one person’s gift.”

In Pam’s case, her donor was a 24-year-old woman who died in a car accident. Her donor had three children, a baby that was only two weeks old and two older daughters, ages four and seven.

“This one 24-year-old woman saved at least three lives,” Pam said. “I met someone who went on his honeymoon after he got her kidney.”

On the downside, Pam said, “You take on survivor’s guilt. Over the years, I’ve corresponded with the donor’s family. I received cards from her daughters when they got older. They were thankful that I kept in touch. It helped the children know that part of their mother still lives.”

Twelve years later, that part of their mother is alive and well in Pam, a true survivor.

“I had to give up my teaching job,” Pam said, “but I had so much more than just being teacher. The positive thing is that I have my life and my family. I’m perfectly fine and have done well.”

Since the transplant, Pam takes 17 pills a day. “You don’t get off with a new organ and only one pill,” she quipped.

Pam is one of the lucky people who received a liver transplant in 2006. That year, roughly 13,000 people were waiting for a liver, according to The American Journal of Transplantation. Pam was one of only 6,649 people who received a liver transplant.

Currently, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) counts 115,000 people on the national organ waiting list; 13,966 of those people are waiting for a liver.

“Now all I can say about [organ donation] is that it’s so needed,” Pam said. “I can’t emphasize enough how much it’s needed.”

Before her transplant, Pam admits she had misconceptions about organ donation. “I had always heard that you don’t get the body back.” This isn’t true. In reality, organs are harvested within hours while the donor is hooked up to respirators in a hospital. Then the body is turned over to the family’s funeral home.

“Your loved ones won’t know the difference from looking at you that you were a donor,” Pam said, “but they’ll know in their hearts.”

When it comes to being a donor and accepting what happens to your body after death, Pam said, “The older I get, and the more I believe in God, the more I realize that you aren’t there. You won’t feel a thing. You’ll look the same. Except so many lives will be changed because of your donation.”

In 2017, 34,768 lives were changed by organ donors, according to UNOS. Yet the organ shortage in the United States continues to grow. One person in need of a transplant is added to the organ waiting list every ten minutes. The demand far outweighs the supply.

For information on how to become an organ donor, go to https://organdonor.gov/index.html, or call OMC Social Services at 417-256-9111, extension 6150.

“If you really think about it,” Pam said, “you’re saving several lives. You have to be at peace about it. You won’t be using that body anyway.”

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