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By the time Rita found out about it, Michael had spent $80,000 on towels, socks, underwear, toaster ovens, comforter sets, shirts and pants, one or two of every color. Over time, Rita did see and question some of Michael’s purchases, but when she asked about them he snapped at her, saying he could buy what he wanted as long as he was paying for it. He used credit cards, and the more he spent, the more credit he was offered by the credit card companies. Michael retrieved the mail before Rita came home. He also hid much of what he bought in his closet, which Rita never looked in, and in the closet of the guest room, and under beds.

“We have ten comforter sets. There are two of us!” Rita says. “We have so many towels and sets of sheets, I had to give hundreds away. And anything with an eagle. He decided he loved eagles.”

“I’d always liked them,” Michael says. “But before then, I’d never had to have them.”

Rita nods. “Yeah. He spent $80,000 on stupid stuff.”

In early 2006, after four years of gathering information and documenting evidence, Rita’s tenacity secured Michael a spot on the transplant list and a contract at Scripps Green. On February 10, he went in for a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt (TIPS) procedure, in which a bypass relieves the pressure of the fluid going through the liver. Although normally an outpatient procedure, blood infections landed Michael in intensive care for two weeks. During those two weeks, he was a backup for two livers (he was second in line for a transplant — twice), but the infections made him ineligible.

“He was on lots of monitors, and he was always making those alarms go off,” Rita says. “When he was in intensive care, it was like he was a dead guy.”

By that point, Rita and Michael were exhausted and ready to accept Michael’s death as imminent. Against the advice of doctors, as well as her own wishes for Michael to die in the hospital so he could be an organ donor, Rita brought him home and set up a hospital bed in the living room.

“I didn’t want to die in the hospital,” Michael says. “I just wanted to pet my cat, watch the big-screen TV, and die [at home].”

∗ ∗ ∗

A pizza, fruit, and cake buffet has been set up in the fourth-floor conference room at the Lifesharing office on Camino del Rio South. People file into the room, put their bags down on their chosen chairs, and fill their plates. When I sit at the large oval table (it won’t be big enough for the 20-some-odd people who show up for tonight’s meeting) between two women, the one on my left asks, “What do you have?” I don’t understand the question until she explains that she’s had her new liver six and a half years. I inform her I have all my original organs and that I’m here researching an article.

The woman on my right introduces herself as Mary. While she takes the pineapple off her pizza (“Not kosher,” she says) she explains that her new liver came from a 14-year-old boy named Jonathan. She got two thirds of the liver, and the other third went to a baby. That was 21 months ago.

“Jonathan is my angel,” she says.

At 7:00 p.m., Sharon Ross, director of public relations and community outreach at Lifesharing, asks for a round of self-introductions. Five liver, three heart, four lung, and five kidney recipients state their names and the length of time they’ve had their new organs. Their time from transplant ranges from 3 1/2 weeks to 24 years. Rita sits at one end of the table, next to Letty, one of Mario’s sisters, whom I’d met along with two other sisters at their childhood home back in April. Letty represents one of five donor families in attendance tonight.

Rita and Letty also represent Lifesharing’s current volunteers. They’ll share their experiences with those who have come to learn about volunteering their time with the organization.

Lifesharing is the sole organ-procurement organization for San Diego and Imperial counties, a population of nearly 3.5 million people. This means that every organ transplanted in this area is recovered by Lifesharing.

A total of 58 such organizations exist across the country, 4 in California. All are federally designated, and each is a member of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which allocates distribution of organs across the country.

Though it is a commonly held belief that there is one waiting list per organ, and that each organ is flown to wherever the patient at the top of the list happens to be, the list shifts and changes each time an organ is made available. When organs are identified, the procurement organization enters information about the organs into the UNOS computer system and runs the match program. The list of criteria that puts a patient at the top of the list include the matching of organ characteristics (size, blood type, tissue type), medical urgency, time on the waiting list, and distance from donor.

The shortage of available organs, which causes people to use terms such as “miracle” and “hero” in the world of organ donation and transplantation, is due to the fact that it is the particular circumstances of death that make a person eligible to be a donor. Only brain death and cardiac death qualify. In the days before the advancement of legal definitions for brain death, all organ recovery used to be from cardiac death, though that’s now less common. As many as eight organs can be recovered after brain death; after cardiac death, often only the kidneys and liver are recoverable. Of the more than 2 million deaths in the United States each year, less than 1 percent are brain deaths.

Once a hospital patient has been identified as a potential donor, the hospital staff contacts Lifesharing. They send out a “first responder” to evaluate the medical and social history of the patient and follow along as doctors perform tests to confirm brain death.

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Comments

monaghan Sept. 7, 2011 @ 3:57 p.m.

Liver transplants for alcoholic 62-year-old men like Michael McCrerey are one of the reasons American medical care is astronomically more expensive than in any other developed country. No one mentions if McCrerey has quit drinking. Furthermore the litigiousness of American society makes it all possible -- as in the "denial of medical care" statute that Rita threatened to use against Kaiser Hospital.

Hey, whatever works.

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liveradvocate Sept. 10, 2011 @ 4:12 p.m.

FYI - too bad they left out the part where Michael quit drinking over 8 years ago and is now active in the local community to help others quit and stay sober. As far as the denial of medical care issue, there is much more to it than what was printed. But in a nutshell, KP was sending him to LA for the transplant, where because there are so many patients waiting he would never have received one and everyone knew it. However, here in his hometown, he stood a decent chance of getting one - but no guarantees of course. So why would a medical provider insist on sending a patient far from home with a definate bad outcome? It was easier for them to say such things as "that's where we send our transplant patients" and "all we have to do is send you where they do them and our obligation is met" - we are happy to report that after our case, KP designated Scripps Green as a Center of Excellence and sends their patients where they stand the best chance of receiving a transplant. BTW - we have received excellent medical care thru KP and have been members there for over 40 years.Thanks for your comments and hope my reply clears a little up for you.

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calgal Sept. 10, 2011 @ 3:36 p.m.

What a great story on a subject we don't really hear much about. I was glad to read some of what goes on behind the scenes and about both the families. I'm sure there is much more to this story than what was printed, each family could probably write a book. Thanks for an interesting read - I'll keep the pink donor dot on my drivers license just in case!

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kgbarnett Sept. 11, 2011 @ 4:27 p.m.

Thank you for sharing your story. My friend, Barbara just had her first fluid removal...10.3 liters removed. She has no family and can not work. Can anyone recommend what kind of assistance is available. She lives in San Diego County. She is 57 years old and has applied for SSI but this will take many months. She, too, needs a liver transplant.

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liveradvocate Sept. 11, 2011 @ 11:11 p.m.

Scripps Green Hospital/La Jolla has a wonderful support group meeting for Liver & Kidney patients on the 1st Wednesday of every month, free service, open to all and no sign in. From 6pm -7pm always a very informative speaker which changes monthly - 7pm to 8pm sessions for kidney patients, Hep C patients, liver pre & post transplant &/or caregivers. Please pass the word in case your friend does not know about it.

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Liz79 Sept. 11, 2011 @ 6:36 p.m.

What an amazing story! Thanks for bringing this important subject to the attention of your readers. Please bring more interesting stories like this to your magazine.

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Obo Sept. 12, 2011 @ 8:08 a.m.

Yes, it was an amazing process! That's my sister all right. She doesn't back down from anything once she sets her sights! Perseverance and conviction and look out! Had it not been for her, Mike would probably not be here anymore. And we are glad he is! Just a real good lesson in not giving in and rolling over. Everyone on this branch of the family tree are now donors thanks to Rita!

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alyman Sept. 12, 2011 @ 9:28 a.m.

Thank you for this wonderfully informative and touching article. It's amazing how little we hear about organ donation and the lives it saves in the media. Great article, I'd love to learn more!

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CertainTrumpet Sept. 12, 2011 @ 10:27 a.m.

To readers for whom this is the first exposure to lifesaving organ transplants this may be a difficult subject to wrap your head around.Most of us are not familiar with this area of medicine unless a friend or loved one has faced the choice of death or a transplant. The vast majority of conditions which make a transplant necessary are either genetically acquired, metabolic disorders, trauma, injury or nutrition deficiencies. Some are of unknown origin. The 4 principal transplant centers in San Diego, UCSD, Sharp, Scripps Green and Rady Childrens saved the lives of 339 people in 2010. These included kidney, liver, heart, lung and pancreas transplants. 12 children are among those saved. The lives saved and improved by the efforts of Lifesharing staff far exceed these 339 people because some recipients are outside the San Diego area, and other factors. Big Thanks to Elizabeth Salaam and the Reader for increasing awareness of the "Gift of Life" through transplantation.
I have a question for readers: If, at no cost or risk to you, you could save the life of another person(s)or give sight to a blind person, would you do so? If, through accident, injury or unexpected illness, you needed a lifesaving transplant, would you want another person to have made such a lifesaving donation? Thank you to all the people who are a part of this article and to the exceptional medical professionals who make transplants a reality. "Life is Good, Lifesharing Made it Happen"

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cvgal Sept. 12, 2011 @ 11:43 a.m.

What an amazing group! I'm totally inspired and will share with many I know. Sometimes, life takes unexpected turns and what a gift to know people I love could help or be helped.

Rita, you rock!! Your hubby is sooo lucky to have you!

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