Organ Recipients Share Stories, Thank Donors, Call For More Donors

By Bernard S. Little, Walter Reed Bethesda Command Communications

Douglas Jordan still tears up when he explains the circumstances that led to his first organ transplants in September 2013. He shared his story, as did other organ recipients, April 26 during the Organ Transplant Fair held in the America Building at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Wendy Caesar-Gibbs, a registered dietitian and board-certified specializing in renal nutrition, helped plan and organize the fair “to bring awareness to the importance of being an organ donor, and showcasing some of our transplant recipients.” She said organ donation extends not only life, but the quality of life the patient can have.

“There are approximately 80,000 people waiting for kidneys in the United States. Patients wait for a deceased donor kidney for five years or more, depending on blood type and region. Increasing the living donor pool would help lessen the wait time and give people a better quality of life,” added Dr. Angela Curry, a clinical transplant pharmacist at WRNMMC who also helped organized the fair.

As part of WRB’s holistic transplant team, Caesar-Gibbs and Curry agreed that one of the rewards of what they do is seeing how their patients progress following a transplant.

“It’s rewarding to see your patients get a new lease on life and to see them thrive in their activities that they may not have been able to enjoy or do,” Curry stated.

“There is no greater reward than that,” added Caesar-Gibbs. “It is then that you fully embrace the fact that what you do matters.”

And matter it does to Jordan, who, along with other organ recipients at the transplant fair, sported shirts with the message, “Have A Heart, It Matters.”

“It’s still hard for me to tell my story,” said Jordan, who also goes by the nickname DJ. “I’m a recipient of a liver and two kidneys.”

The retired Air Force master sergeant explained he found out in 2011 that his liver failure was failing. He was then placed on the waiting list to receive a transplant.

Fast forward a couple of years to Sept. 11, 2013 with his liver still in decline, Jordan left his office in Washington, D.C. to go to a business meeting, which lasted for about 30 minutes. Three hours later, he was in Richmond, Virginia, not knowing how he got there or why he was there.

“My car had run out of gas, and I had abandoned it on the highway,” Jordan said. “I later found out I had walked around in Richmond for two days and two nights. I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know where I was,” he added.

“I had developed hepatic encephalopathy (HE),” he explained. “This is when your liver fails because it’s not able to filter the chemicals in your body, so ammonia enzymes had gone from my liver to my brain causing instant memory loss.”

Jordan said as he wandered the streets of Richmond, even going into some of its hardest areas, he felt people didn’t assist him or bothered him because they probably felt he was homeless and destitute. He added that during those two days the only thing he recalled eating was chalk he had purchased from a store he had drifted in.

He said a Silver Alert was issued throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia for him.

“On Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, two paramedics found me in a parking lot in Richmond,” Jordan said. “They had gone into a sandwich shop, and the Silver Alert came on a television in the store.”

Jordan said as he was getting into the ambulance, he felt his back pocket and discovered he still had his wallet. “My military ID was in it. I pulled it out and handed it to the paramedics and said, ‘I think this is me.’” He then passed out.

“The next then I knew when I woke up, my sister was standing over me at the hospital in Richmond, but I didn’t even know who she was, or my brother, who was also there,” Jordan continued. “It was determined I had walked 13 miles in those two days, just wandering the streets of Richmond, not knowing who I was or where I was.”

A native of Dayton, Ohio and owner of a food service business in D.C, Jordan explained he was rushed from the Richmond hospital’s emergency room to the transplant center at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where he was on the list for the liver transplant.

Jordan underwent a liver and kidney transplant at the University of Maryland, but the transplanted kidney began to fail and he went on the waiting list for another one.

“My brother came forth to donate his kidney, but he was not a match,” said Jordan wiping tears from his eyes with a tissue. “We went into the swap program, which meant he would donate one of his kidneys to someone who he is a match with so I could get a kidney from someone who matched me.

“I still ask myself to this day, ‘How could someone be that giving,’” Jordan added. “[My brother] donated his kidney to a complete stranger, and a complete stranger gave of themselves to me, so that I could have a better life,” he said, again wiping away tears.

Almost a year to the day of his first transplants, Jordan had his second kidney transplant, this one performed at Walter Reed Bethesda, in September 2014. WRNMMC’s Organ Transplant Service only does kidney transplants because of its size

The Organ Transplant Service at Walter Reed Bethesda is the only transplant center in the Military Health System and is in the top tier of all U.S. transplant programs, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR), a regulatory body that tracks transplant program outcomes.

When asked how he is now doing, Jordan responded with a radiant smile, “I am wonderful. It’s been a journey, but I feel it’s a journey that I needed to take to teach me a lot, not only about myself, but about other people as well. There are some good people out there, and there are some not so good people. It is life rewarding. I think my main reason for being here is to tell others, ‘This is possible.’” he added.

Vicki Pitts

Walter Reed Bethesda performs an average of 25 transplants per year, according to Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jason Hawksworth, transplant chief at WRNMMC. Vicki Pitts is one of the more recent beneficiaries to receive a kidney transplant at the medical center.

“Oct. 31, 2016, I got a call from my doctor and she said, ‘You need to come in to see me,’” Pitts recalled. “I came into Internal Medicine and the doctor said, ‘You need to go to another area, Nephrology.’ I responded, ‘I don’t know what nephrology is.’”

In Nephrology, Pitts was told she would need dialysis or a transplant because her kidney was failing. She added the news was “shocking” because she didn’t feel sick and maintained a very active lifestyle.

A former flight attendant and tour director who has traveled the world, Pitts said once she got the news she would need dialysis or a transplant, her lifestyle suddenly changed and it wasn’t easy.

Walter Reed Bethesda providers kept a close eye on her while she waited for the transplant, adjusting her medication to try and stabilize her failing kidney. They started the process of mapping my veins for dialysis, but then another surprise happened — Pitts’ daughter, Jennifer, stepped up to be her donor.

“I was on my way to Canada and my daughter called and said, ‘Mom, I’m your match,’” Pitts recalled. “We all cried. It was such a blessing,” said Pitts, whose husband is a retired Air Force officer.

Pitts said she would have never asked her daughter to be her donor. “I was thinking my sister would be my donor,” she added. But her daughter was tested to see if she would be a match.

“My daughter said, “Mom, of course it would be me. Her call was the happiest day of our lives. I’m 69 years of age, and the cut off [for the transplant] is 70. That was another blessing. All the miracles that have happened are for a reason,” Pitts added.

A mere three weeks after her transplant, Pitts was assisting at the Walter Reed Bethesda Organ Transplant Fair, walking from table to table serving cake and passing out information about the importance of organ donation. She said she and her husband have been coming to Walter Reed for her care for nearly 40 years. He had open heart surgery here 16 years ago and was with her at the fair.

Pitts added she, along with her husband, travel from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to come to WRNMMC for care. She called the providers here “amazing,” adding her kidney transplant was a team effort. “You have a dietitian, pharmacist, nephrologist, surgeon, laboratory staff and their teams. It’s everybody, and you all work together. They are so nice.”

Asked how she is doing now, Pitts said with a big smile, “Fabulous. I walked two miles six days [after the transplant]. I think the key is your attitude and the other thing is to exercise. You have to work that kidney.” She added doctors continue to monitor her, but so far everything is going very well. “It’s been wonderful,” she added.

Debra Washington

Debra Washington, another kidney recipient at WRNMMC agrees that life is wonderful.

Washington is a familiar face around the medical center where she has served as a longtime volunteer. She began volunteering with the American Red Cross at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center WRAMC), where she had her first kidney transplant.

A South Carolina native, Washington was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1986 while still on active duty in the Army and serving in Germany. “I was sent to WRAMC where I had my first transplant,” she explained. That kidney lasted 13 years before Washington needed another transplant.

“I ended up coming over here for treatment,” Washington continued. “For a long time they thought I wasn’t going to get another transplant because of my antibodies, but they found one for me.” Her second transplant was in September 2015 at WRNMMC.

Washington stressed the importance of organ donation. “It can affect anyone. You never imagine it could happen to you, just as I thought it couldn’t happen to me,” she said.

“I’m doing great,” Washington said in response to how she is now doing.

Jordan, Pitts and Washington expressed appreciation to those who donated their organs, as well as their families, which have allowed the three to have a better quality of life. The organ recipients all said those decisions by others “to have a heart,” have allowed them to be able to give back to others in various ways.

Hawksworth explained the goal of WRB’s Organ Transplant Service is to help every patient in need of a life-saving kidney, “but we can’t do that without the selfless act of living donors. It’s an honor and a privilege to match a living organ donor with a military beneficiary — both heroes who have dedicated themselves to serving others.”

For more information about organ donation at WRNMMC, call Nephrology Dialysis and the Organ Transplant Center at 301–295–4331.