BROTHER'S DEATH IN 1998 SPURRED FAMILY TO GIVE HIS ORGANS TO SIX IN NEED
Woman gets transplants years after kin's donation
The call came unexpectedly Aug. 12 - it looked like a kidney and a pancreas would probably be available for Meredith McCall, a 34-year-old Tucson resident who was in kidney failure.
"I went to bed that night knowing that she would have her transplant on Friday the 13th - and I knew everything was going to be OK," Meredith's mother, Cathy McCall, recalled last week.
"It's come full circle," Meredith added.
Indeed, if it's true that one good deed begets another, then the McCall family earned Meredith's gift of life.
Meredith's younger brother, Jim, was born Feb. 13, 1978. Thirteen was his favorite number. On the Salpointe Catholic High School soccer team, his jersey number was 13.
When he died in a motorcycle accident in 1998 at the age of 19, his organs went to six different people.
Among those recipients was a high school counselor in Chandler who received Jim's liver. He sends the McCalls cards on Jim's birthday each year, and contacts Cathy every Mother's Day.
Other organs Jim donated included a kidney to a young woman in Prescott; heart valves to a 5-month-old baby in New Mexico and a 37-year-old man in Ohio; and one cornea each to young men in the Phoenix area.
The McCall family has been thinking about Jim more than ever in these past few weeks.
Jim, an affable athlete, was attending Pima Community College and working at Cushing Street Bar & Grill at the time of his death.
He'd planned on opening a restaurant of his own one day.
In response to Jim's death, the McCall family started the local nonprofit LifeDonor USA Foundation, which aims to reduce wait times for organ donations by increasing the number of organ donors in the United States. They note that the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist faiths support organ donation as a charitable act.
Cathy, husband Jay, and daughters Bridget and Meredith do all they can to raise public awareness of the importance of talking to family members about donating organs. Jim had made his wishes known long before his motorcycle accident.
When three students in Meredith's grade died within 15 days of one another during her junior year at Salpointe - two of them in automobile accidents - the McCall family had conversations about life and death, including whether they wanted to be organ donors.
When Jim died, the grief-stricken family immediately knew for certain what Jim would have wanted and authorized the organ donation.
"The most important thing is to talk to your family," Cathy said.
Little did the family know that Meredith, who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when she was 16 months old, would end up needing a transplant herself.
Meredith found out she was in kidney failure after a routine visit to the doctor earlier this year.
"You figure you're supposed to be really sick if it's that bad, and I hadn't felt sick," said Meredith, who works for a credit union.
When Meredith met with the transplant team at University Medical Center they recommended both kidney and pancreas transplants. Ideally, the pancreas transplant would cure her diabetes.
"It was the first time I've met a family with a child who was a donor and a child who was a recipient," said Joe Fitzgerald, the chaplain supervisor at UMC, who has worked closely with organ donors and recipients since 2005. Fitzgerald worked at Salpointe, where he knew all three McCall siblings and coached Jim in track and cross country.
Meredith's story is unique not only because Jim was a donor, but also because the McCalls have been such longtime vocal advocates for organ donations, Fitzgerald said.
Meredith had expected a wait of about two years to get the organs, and she prepared to start dialysis.
She had also been looking for a living donor to give her a kidney. Hospital officials encourage living donors as an alternative to long waits for deceased donors. Her sister offered, but didn't qualify. A cousin volunteered and was going through the work-up when Meredith received the call about a 32-year-old woman who appeared to be a match, and wasn't expected to live. By the next morning, the woman had died.
When Meredith woke up after seven hours of surgery on Friday, Aug. 13, with a new pancreas and a new kidney, her diabetes was gone. She no longer has to give herself the daily insulin injections that had been a lifelong routine.
Transplanting a pancreas is a serious operation with much higher risks than a kidney transplant alone, but transplanting them together is not uncommon, said Dr. Bruce Kaplan, a University of Arizona nephrologist and medical director of the UMC abdominal transplantation program.
Meredith will need to be on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life. As long as she doesn't reject the organs or have a recurrence of the diabetes (a slight possibility), there's no reason why she can't recover and live a regular life, Kaplan said.
Meredith plans to write to the family of the Utah woman whose organs she received. Recipients may write to their donor families via donor networks. Donor families choose whether they want to see the correspondence.