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Transplant Reunion Celebrates Second Chances, Gift of Life

7/24/2007

Omaha, Neb. - They come to celebrate, to see old friends and to make new ones. Several hundred transplant recipients will gather in Omaha on Saturday, July 28, 2007 for The Nebraska Medical Center's Transplant Reunion.

This year's celebration marks 37 years of organ transplantation and more than 3,600 transplants* in Omaha. The reunion runs from 8:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Convention Center, 3321 South 72nd Street. Young guests will enjoy special activities, arts and crafts. Adults can attend educational sessions geared specifically toward their post-transplant needs. The day wraps up with group pictures featuring each transplant "class" as classified by type of transplant/organ.

For Michelle Sweeney of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the reunion is not only a celebration of life, but also a chance to LIVE life. The 51-year-old mother and grandmother received a liver transplant at The Nebraska Medical Center on December 3, 2006.

She battled serious post-surgery complications but says today she is feeling great. "I love life. I am alive at 51 years of age," exclaimed Sweeney.

Her illness started with severe arthritis. The ongoing use of strong medications to combat the chronic pain damaged her liver, causing Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis or NASH.

Seven months post-transplant, Sweeney replaces the pain and depression surrounding her illness with joy and excitement for the future.

"This spring at a motorcycle rally in Ames, I modeled clothing for a Harley Davidson catalog and calendar. I also told the women there about my transplant and the importance of organ donation," she shared.

An avid motorcyclist, Sweeney is quick to express her gratitude to her donor's family and the unexpected connection the women shared.

"My liver came from a 76-year-old woman who rode her son-in-law's motorcycle and loved it," said Sweeney. "She's always with me. We ride a 2003 Yamaha V-Star together. But now, instead of riding she drives - we drive!"

Don Brouillette of Bellevue has attended the Transplant Reunion every year since 1995. As The Nebraska Medical Center's first heart transplant recipient in 1994, he enjoys catching up with people he's grown to know through the years. "I've met a lot of people who have received different types of transplants," he said. "We've become good friends and we try to keep in contact as much as possible."

Brouillette suffered his first heart attack more than two decades ago in 1985. He did well until 1991 when he was hit suddenly with a series of heart attacks. Bypass surgery failed and in the fall of 1993, he learned he would need a new heart.

"I was fortunate - my wait lasted only a few months. I received my transplant on March 8, 1994," he remembered.

Brouillette has watched The Nebraska Medical Center's heart transplant program grow in recent years. Since his surgery in 1994, a total of 56 heart transplants have been performed. Twenty-six of those operations have occurred over the past 22 months.

James Laird and his family count Omaha as a "second home." The Transplant Reunion has become their summer vacation for all but one of the past 15 years.

"We pack up the car and take the 'scenic route,'" said Laird. It's no small feat considering the family lives in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

Laird's son, Jonathan, received a liver transplant in June 1992 when he was just seven months old. Now 15, Jonathan is doing great said his dad. "He's in the process of getting his driver's license. He's a tennis player and he is part of Team Mississippi in the U.S. Transplant Games."

Laird sees the reunion as a chance for their former nurses, doctors and coordinators to see Jonathan's progress.

"The transplant center and staff are like family. We've gone to the weddings of our former nurses, now they have growing children," he explained. "We also have good friends, other families that have gone through transplants, who we meet at the reunion each year. The kids get together. It's a great time to catch up with everyone."

Laird himself draws on his experience as a transplant dad each day in his job as a family service coordinator with the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency (MORA).

"I talk with donor families who are in the midst of a difficult situation. Having gone through this on the recipient end, I can share with them the hope that can come out of a tough time," said Laird. "I also get to facilitate meetings between donor families and transplant recipients. It is an amazing job - one that I never would have thought of doing had Jonathan not had his transplant."

Many other families will join the Lairds in traveling hundreds of miles to attend this year's reunion. In addition to Mississippi, recipients from Illinois, California, Idaho and several Midwestern states will be in attendance.

* More than 3,600 solid organ transplants (kidney, heart, small bowel, pancreas and liver) have been performed at The Nebraska Medical Center since 1985.

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