A victory for organ donation on Super Bowl Sunday

Rittershausen2
Donna and Robert Rittershausen.

About 10 minutes after the Eagles beat the Patriots in historic fashion in Minneapolis on Feb. 5, the phone rang.  It was Jefferson Hospital’s transplant team with an organ transplant “offer.”

Eight months prior, my 52-year-old husband, Robert, was hospitalized with what we initially thought were severe symptoms of the flu or a stomach virus.  It didn’t take long for one of the doctors to tell us something I had never expected to hear: cirrhosis of the liver.

Doctors recommended a transfer from a local hospital in South Jersey to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to be evaluated for a liver transplant.  This didn’t make much sense to us initially because we aren’t drinkers and quite honestly, Robert can often count on one hand how many alcoholic drinks he has a year.  Unbeknownst to us, there’s something called Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis or NASH cirrhosis and this was his diagnosis.

Still, it took a while for it to sink in that he had end stage liver disease, and in his current condition our family plans, hopes and dreams would be short-lived.

The next few months after his diagnosis were spent going through the transplant evaluation process, monitoring something called a MELD score and getting on the waiting list for an organ donation, not to mention handling insurance matters and filling out countless disability forms.

We learned that despite advances in medicine and technology, and increased awareness of the importance of organ donation and transplantation, there continues to be a gap between supply and demand.  There simply aren’t enough organ donors to help those in need, so getting on (and being healthy enough to stay on) the waiting list does not guarantee an offer.

Camera icon Courtesy of Donna Rittershausen
Robert Rittershausen

The wait was difficult for Robert and every member of our family, especially our 8 and 11-year-old boys. We had to stay within a two-hour radius of the transplant center and be ready at any time to head to the hospital, all the while never knowing when or even if the call would come.

Then, on Super Bowl Sunday we were told there was an organ donor who was a match for us. We learned of some basic particulars about their health and how they had died (young). We don’t know anything about the organ donor’s family or kids.  We only imagine how tragic their loss must have been.

Robert had a liver transplant before the Eagles paraded down Broad Street.  I could hear the excitement and energy from the crowds of fans that packed the city that day while he was in the ICU after surgery.  After about 11 days in the hospital, we continued the recovery process at home. About a month later, he’s starting to feel better.

There’s a long road ahead to full recovery, but the path is getting easier each and every day.  Modern medicine has offered us a second chance.  My kids, who just a few short months ago were asking me if their daddy was going to die, have newfound hope as they watch him getting stronger by the day.  We look forward to getting back to our family travels, summer adventures and spending time with friends.

When we think of the family who so graciously decided to donate their loved one’s organs in a time of such deep sorrow, we wish we could say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  Each organ donor has the opportunity to save up to eight lives and your loved one has saved at least one life already, and probably many more.  Hopefully knowing this helps ease your grief.  God bless you.

Donna Rittershausen lives in Mickleton, N.J. with her husband Robert and two children. For more information about organ donation, visit unos.org.