DONATE LIFE ORGAN DONATION AWARENESS - KEARNEY, NEBRASKA
Broken Bow liver recipient overflows with gratitude
By KRIS WILLIAMS Hub Regional Correspondent
BROKEN BOW — There’s no hiding the emotions Sandy Bitterman feels about having her life back.
The tears flow as she tries to describe just how grateful she is to the family who donated a loved one’s liver so she could stay alive.
“To try to find the exact right words to say to (the family) is really tough. It’s hard to get beyond thank you,” Bitterman said. “Thank you for giving me my life back. The (other) option I was faced with was devastating.”
Bitterman, 46, of rural Broken Bow is home recuperating after she received the liver two months ago.
“For me, I knew I had no other options. My feelings run really deep, because to be this age, I know this would have been the end,” Bitterman said before trailing off.
She said she prayed for a liver as well as for the family who lost a loved one so they would be at peace with their decision.
An autoimmune disease Bitterman had had for more than 20 years slowly destroyed her liver, and cancer eventually grew. An annual liver checkup in October 2009, which she nearly skipped, revealed the cancer.
The tumor was too large for Bitterman to immediately be placed on the transplant list, so doctors scheduled two operations to shrink the tumor.
When it became small enough, Bitterman also had to qualify by undergoing physical, psychological and lifestyle evaluations. Her age played in her favor and by December 2009, she was on the transplant list.
While she waited, Bitterman had to be re-evaluated every three months to make sure she still qualified. A third surgery in early August put radiation directly into the tumor to shrink some growth.
“It was just a matter of waiting for a phone call,” she said.
Her husband Todd said they began to answer every call with anticipation, but after months, started to doubt it would happen.
Although her doctors never gave her a timeline, Bitterman knew death was imminent without a transplant.
“They didn’t come right out and tell me there was no hope for me, but I know the statistics of liver cancer,” she said.
The call finally came about 2 p.m. Aug 12. A liver was available if she wanted it.
Even though there would be a 30 percent chance of bile infection with that particular liver, Bitterman said she decided the odds were in her favor.
“It was a whirlwind after the call,” Bitterman said.
She had had a hospital bag packed for nine months. A friend of the family, Ace Jungren, flew the couple from the Broken Bow airport to the Millard airport near Omaha in just one hour.
Another friend, Dean Slingsby, rushed home from Colorado to pick up the Bittermans’ daughters, Chandra and Charmagne, and drove them to Omaha.
Chandra said her whole family experienced a lot of emotions during that time. “We knew it was happening, but still couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Todd Bitterman called the time “surreal.”
Soon after surgery, Bitterman said she was walking up and down the halls. Recovery included advancements and setbacks, but by Sept. 30, she returned home. Day by day she is doing more and getting stronger, she said.
She said the support of family, friends, community, neighbors, area church members and co-workers has been overwhelming.
“It’s the things people will go out of their way to do to make things easier for others,” she said, listing prayer, help with chores and gifts of food, along with calls, cards and visits as pieces that played a major role in how well her situation has turned out.
Bitterman worked full-time at BD in Broken Bow. She has no timetable, but plans to return. She will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life. She said doctors are cautiously optimistic. She’s aware that something still could go wrong.
“It’s such a hard thing to come up with the words to say thank you for my life,” Bitterman said.
“‘Donor’ is just a symbol on your driver’s license until you’re on the other side of it,” she said. “I hope my story can generate some interest in organ donation.”