Virginia man’s life changed with donation of 2 organs
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Every Aug. 15 for the last 25 years, Mike McClanahan has sent a bouquet to a woman living in Dover, Tennessee.
McClanahan of Roanoke and Shirley Grizzard met only once, and they have little in common with the exception of one large thing: Each carries within the love of Orlando De la Rosa.
On Aug. 14, 1993, eight days after his car was sliced in two, De la Rosa died. Unexpectedly becoming his widow, Grizzard honored his request to continue helping people, and by the following evening his kidney and pancreas had been transplanted into McClanahan.
The kidney freed McClanahan from the tethers of dialysis, and the pancreas cured him of juvenile diabetes.
Few patients underwent kidney and pancreas transplants in 1993. While kidney transplants were fairly common then, few pancreas transplants were being done. The surgery was complicated and risky, and little was known about whether there would be any benefit.
“Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t that clear that there would be an advantage. As we know now, there is a huge advantage, especially for juvenile diabetes. Today it would be the standard of care,” said University of Virginia transplant surgeon Dr. Jose Oberholzer.
McClanahan, who was then 33, was adamant about having the double transplant.
“The doctor kept saying, ‘Let’s see if a family can give you a kidney, and we can get you off dialysis.’ And even though that sounded good, I said, ‘Why don’t we wait and get a pancreas? The diabetes is causing the kidney issues, and unless I can solve the diabetes, the problem is going to happen to the next kidney,’” he said.
De la Rosa was from Puerto Rico and was 17 years younger than Grizzard. She said she refused at first to go out with him. But he persisted, and she realized she enjoyed talking with him during workplace breaks, and she missed him much when he went to visit family one Christmas. On New Year’s Eve they went out on their first date and were inseparable for five years.
Grizzard said her parents and the people living in her small Tennessee town frowned on mixed-race relationships, but De la Rosa’s gregarious nature changed their minds.
“Dad and him became the best of friends. Everyone grew to love him. He was the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back,” she said.
He also knew he’d die young.
“From the first day I met him, he always told me he was going to die before he was 25. I said, ‘You don’t know that.’ He said, ‘I just want to donate my organs and keep helping people,’?” she said.
He was a fast driver, and one afternoon while traveling on the highway between their home in Dover and their workplace in Clarksville, De la Rosa either fell asleep or was blinded by the sun, she said. His car rammed into the one in front of him, then spun into the other lane and was sliced in two by an oncoming van.
He was in the hospital for eight days with brain injuries and never regained consciousness. Grizzard said he seemed to improve the day of his 24th birthday, but hope was short-lived. His mother had arrived from Puerto Rico to be at his bedside and became upset when Grizzard agreed to donate his organs.
“She didn’t want his body cut up. But this is what he wanted. Five people were helped,” Grizzard said. “God doesn’t want anything but our souls.”
Several months after De la Rosa died, Grizzard received a letter from one recipient.
“I cried my eyes out because these people were alive and Orlando was not. But I prayed, and it thrills me every day to see Mike doing well,” she said.
She received letters from two recipients, a 52-year-old woman who received his liver and a football coach who received his heart. McClanahan sent flowers on the first anniversary, and every year since. He calls and visited her once years ago.
Oberholzer said the success of kidney transplants in 1993 was similar to today, though the surgery can now be performed through tiny incisions and with the assistance of robots, and the medication regimen afterward is far less onerous.
“When you receive a kidney from a cadaver donor, it will last on average about 10 years, which means at 10 years, about 50 percent are still working, and some of them will go on for 20, 30 or more years,” he said.
With so few pancreas transplants at that time, it would be difficult to know how long someone would likely benefit. There are still far fewer pancreas than kidney transplants. Last year at UVa, surgeons transplanted 140 kidneys but only 14 pancreases.
While at the University of Illinois, Oberholzer in 2016 performed the first pancreas transplant in the U.S. through minimally invasive surgery.
He’s hoping his other work in developing a better method of transplanting cells instead of organs will replace the need for pancreas transplants altogether and offer a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Living the last 25 years without diabetes changed McClanahan’s life. No longer did his family and friends need to worry about him.
“I used to be able to tell when my blood sugar was changing,” he said. “As I got older, I started losing that ability to sense it. Next thing I knew my sugar would be dropping out on me.”
Though he didn’t elaborate, his sister Sallie Godwin said he wrecked cars and would pass out.
“My sister found him unconscious in his kitchen and couldn’t get the door open because he was right inside the door. I don’t know how she got in. Did she break the glass?” Godwin asked.
“How would I know? I was unconscious,” McClanahan replied.
McClanahan said his colleagues at Ewald-Clark photo shop, especially Cheryl Oyler, and his friends at Pet City, where he’d play with and photograph cougars and tigers, were generous with their care and support while he awaited the transplant.
“There were several customers and coworkers who saved me several times,” McClanahan said.
Three evenings a week, McClanahan would go for dialysis. By then he had lost the sight in one eye. He waited three and a half years for the organs. Today, the wait for kidneys from cadavers is five years.
“The biggest problem with the wait time is a survival issue,” Oberholzer said. “When you are on dialysis, your chances of being alive after five years is 50 percent. If you have a kidney transplant, your chances of being alive after five years is close to 90 percent. Getting a kidney transplant quickly is important, and the only way to do that is through a living donor.”
McClanahan’s youngest sister, Laura, also had type 1 diabetes. She died in 2010 after waiting seven years on the transplant list.
“Laura had a lot of other (medical) problems, too, and she kept saying, ‘Mike, this isn’t going to end up the way you want it to,’” he said.
Godwin and sister Jackie Porter do not have the disease, but Godwin’s daughter does.
Once someone is on dialysis, Oberholzer said the best scenario is to receive a kidney from a live donor, ideally from someone whose blood and tissue match well, but non-compatible organs can be used. A second transplant to receive a cadaver pancreas then takes place a few months later.
McClanahan, who’s now 58, said he’s had few complications. His recovery in the hospital of 46 days was 36 more than he had planned, and initially, his body showed signs of rejection. The 50-pills-a-day regimen has been reduced over the years to just two. He said his doctor suggested stopping those as well since so much time has passed. But McClanahan said, “I’ll keep taking them. I don’t want to take a chance after this long of something happening.”
He said tests are showing the kidney is starting to show some signs of failing.
About 10 years ago, he had the lower part of his right leg amputated. He had an unrelated condition that caused him to walk on the side of his foot, but an ulcer developed that wouldn’t heal because of the immunosuppressant medication he was taking.
He continues to play with and photograph big cats, mostly at the Natural Bridge Zoo. And he works in Wells Fargo’s financial crimes department, investigating debit card fraud.
McClanahan said “thank you” just doesn’t seem adequate for having been given a second chance at living and for being able to meet and befriend so many wonderful people in the last 25 years. He plans to thank Grizzard in person for having honored her late husband’s wishes.
“I’m just so blessed to think Orlando is living in someone as sweet as Mike,” Grizzard said.
Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com