The gift of life and breath
Special to The Union
For Mike Reuscher, life and death have been intertwined for as long as he can remember. “I’ve almost died twice,” Mike said.
His wife Lyndsay chimes in. “Mike, you’ve almost died lots of times. You’re like a cat.”
Mike was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that damages the lungs and digestive system.
Now 31, Mike lives with his wife of nearly 10 years, and their four-year-old son Graysen. Living with this health condition hasn’t always been easy — but he shares that it has been worth it. He attributes his will to live to his love of family and his faith in God.
At age 24, Mike’s lungs began failing, leaving him in precarious health. In January 2009, Mike underwent a life-changing double lung transplant.
“It’s a gift — the greatest gift you can get,” Mike said.
The transplant allowed Mike to enjoy time with his wife, and soon, his new son. Then in 2014, Mike was diagnosed with chronic rejection of his lungs. He often couldn’t breathe and began making frequent visits to the Emergency Department.
Though lung re-transplants aren’t common, doctors determined that a new set of lungs was the best hope for Mike, and in May 2015, he was dually-listed on transplant lists at Stanford and at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.
“From the time I was approved to go on the list, the waiting was nerve-wracking,” Mike said. “The possibility of me not making it was definitely running through my head.”
The Reuschers moved temporarily to Phoenix, where they thought Mike stood a better chance of getting the lungs he so desperately needed. Yet as the wait dragged on, Mike got weaker, needing oxygen and becoming very sick.
“It was hard on Lyndsay, splitting her time between me and Graysen,” Mike said. “And I was frustrated because I wanted to spend time with Graysen, be a dad to him, and I really couldn’t.”
At the end of August, a day after their ninth wedding anniversary, Mike got his new lungs at St. Joseph’s.
“By the grace of God — everything worked out,” Lindsay said, referring not only to the transplant but to the generosity of virtual strangers who helped provide a temporary home to the family in Phoenix.
Today, Mike says he feels great. He is enjoying life as a full-time father to Graysen, and is able to take long walks, play t-ball and rough house with his son, and even plan a recent trip to Disneyland.
“I get to spend so much time with him, so I’m happy,” shared Mike.
In a recent follow-up appointment in Phoenix, Mike’s physicians told him his pulmonary function was high and everything looked great.
Mike is not alone. Each year, thousands of lives are saved by organ donation. Sadly, however, more than 121,000 people in the U.S. still need life-saving transplants, and many will not receive the life-giving transplant they need.
“The truth is, one in three people waiting on the organ transplant list will die before a suitable organ becomes available,” said Deanna Santana, Public Education/Relations Manager of Sierra Donor Services (SDS), the nonprofit organ, eye and tissue transplant donor network based in Sacramento and serving Northern California and Nevada.
But there is good news as well. In 2015, 30,969 life-saving transplants were performed in the U.S., the first time this number exceeded 30,000.
According to Santana, one donor can save the lives of up to eight people. Transplants include organs like heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and intestine — or tissue such as corneas, skin, bone and tendons. One tissue donation can benefit up to 50 people.
“These gifts can restore life after a radical mastectomy due to cancer or after burns, sight after corneal blindness, bone after a fall or bone cancer, tendons after a tendon rupture, and more,” Santana said.
Santana says part of her job is to dispel myths surrounding organ donation. Primarily, she wants people to know that they are much more likely to need a transplant during their lifetime than they are to become a donor.
The discussion of donation takes place only after death. In other words, hospital and emergency personnel will do everything in their power to save their patient — and they cannot access the Donate Life Registry until after a confirmed donor’s death.
Santana encourages new donors. “You truly can give the gift of life, like Mike received.”
To join the Donate Life Registry, visit http://www.donateLIFEcalifornia.org or register at the DMV when applying for a driver’s license or identification card.
As part of National Donor Month, community members may help raise awareness about organ and tissue donations this Friday as part of National Donate Life Blue & Green Day by wearing blue and green.
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.
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