Even teachers aren't crazy about being called into the principal's office -- especially if they've been missing a lot of school lately."Right before I came back to work, I came by to visit and Mr. (Tim) Miller called me back to his office," said Miriam Belanger-Pitts (Mrs. B to her students). "I didn't know what to expect."
After all, the speech teacher hadn't been to her job at all three Community schools since late August. Other speech pathologists, including one in-system and two contract, were having to cover for her. Having the principal of Community Elementary School single her out was a little disconcerting.
What he told her was not something she ever expected to hear.
"He said, 'There's something you need to know,'" said Miriam. "'We're giving you a benefit.'"
Back at work
Miriam returned to work last week after recovering from a life-changing -- and life-extending -- operation in Memphis. To help with her medical expenses, the faculty of all three schools are holding a benefit basketball game and bake sale at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the middle school gym. The teams and the baked goods will be made by the faculty members themselves. No entry fee will be charged, but donations will be taken.
Miriam was the recipient of a pancreas-kidney transplant, one of the most difficult organ transfers to do.
"The pancreas is so sensitive, it doesn't react well," said the teacher. "They told me the pancreas is the hardest to transplant -- 30 percent of pancreas transplants don't even take."
Only 39 (and looking closer to 25) Miriam is relatively young for a transplant of this magnitude, but it's been a possibility she's been aware of most of her life.
"I've had juvenile diabetes -- that's Type 1 -- since I was 12," she said. "It has different effects on everyone and with me, it was my kidneys."
In Type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. The pancreas is where that process is supposed to take place, but didn't in Miriam's case.
When she was told recently that her kidneys were failing, she knew she would have to consider a kidney transplant or dialysis.
"I requested a pancreas transplant too," she said. "What's the point of having new kidneys if I still have the diabetes?"
It took more than a year and a half of testing to determine if she was a valid organ recipient. Soon after she was approved and placed on the waiting list, she and her husband Tom got a call.
"I wasn't ready," said Miriam. "We didn't have anything packed."
The doctors called back soon after and told there had been a problem with the organs and they weren't usable.
"I was really kind of relieved," she said. "It wasn't supposed to happen that soon."
Last July 4, she got another call and she and Tom headed to Methodist University Hospital in Memphis and prepped for surgery. It was a roller coaster day for the couple. Again, the organ wasn't good enough for transplanting, but later that same day, another one came available.
Then it, too, was rejected by the doctors as unusable.
"I wasn't upset," said Miriam. "I knew I'd get through it. I always knew it was going to happen for me."
The phone call that came on Aug. 31, however, was a "Go." The pancreas and kidney this time were not only deemed good matches by the doctors, they started working right away -- during surgery."That's very unusual," said Miriam. "They usually have a dormant period."
Miriam talks to a friend while waiting to hear from the doctors at the hospital in Memphis. She said she refused to wear a hospital gown until she absolutely had to. The unusual bracelet was a gift from her fellow speech pathologists. It is to promote awareness of organ donor programs and the need for more involvement.(Submitted photo)
While a single kidney can come from a living donor, called a "live" organ, a pancreas can only come from a cadaver. To improve the chances her body would accept the new organs, it was better that both kidney and pancreas came from the same donor. At the same time, this also decreases the possibility that the kidney will work.
She stayed in the hospital about a month, longer than usual because of an infection. She then had to go back for a few days when it looked as though there was some minor rejection going on.
Since then, however, "Everything's working great!" she said.
She will have to take anti-rejection medicines for the rest of her life, but that doesn't faze the petite blonde at all.
"I was going to have to do that anyway," she said. "Only now, instead of injections, I just get to pop some pills."
With her new pancreas, Miriam doesn't have diabetes anymore, but the earlier damage done to her body, such as neuropathy and some minor vision impairment, can't be reversed.
A new life
The overall experience has had profound changes on her life .
"Everyone thinks it was a horrible experience," said Miriam. "But it wasn't. It was a wonderful experience."
During her waits for organs, she made friends, both of the medical staff and fellow patients waiting for organs. One was Carlos, a middle-aged man from Puerto Rico who was waiting for a new liver. He'd been at the hospital for months and visited the other patients to keep their spirits up.
"He said, 'There's a reason God brought me here early," she said.
When Carlos finally received his liver, it was Miriam's turn to keep his spirits up, calling and texting him as they waited for his wife to arrive from Puerto Rico.
"He called me his angel," said Miriam.
There are other "angels" out there, too.
"I want to say thank you to everyone who called and sent cards or text messages -- all of the support for everything," she said. "My family was a huge support, and my co-workers ... my supervisor even came all to way to visit me in Memphis. It meant so much to me."
The one person she wants to thank the most is the one she will never be able to -- not in person. He was the 32-year-old man who died of a sudden aneurysm, saving not only her life, but four others with his organ donation.
"A 14-year-old girl in Nashville received his other kidney," said Miriam. "He donated his heart and lungs and liver. I've never really appreciated the organ donor program before. Until it touches you personally, you can't appreciate what a true gift it is."
All three Community schools will be joining forces -- and facing off -- in a benefit basketball game and bake sale for speech teacher Miriam Belanger-Pitts at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the middle school gym. There's no entry fee, but donations will be collected. "In the case of inclement weather, we will postpone it," said the principal. "We don't want anyone getting hurt coming out here." The teams will be made up of the faculty from all three schools. Snowbird will be present for photos.
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