To celebrate the 10th anniversary of her life-saving surgery, liver transplant recipient Morgan Mathews went to San Diego with her mother.
The reason: She'd never been there.
Without the operation, without "things lining up" in just the right way, the Clintonville resident would never have gotten there.
Once every 48 hours, according to Lifeline of Ohio media relations and community outreach coordinator Rachel Lewis, a resident of the Buckeye State dies while awaiting an organ transplant.
A decade ago, Mathews learned after her surgery that she was probably within as little as two weeks of becoming a statistic.
But she didn't, and Mathews knows just how much luck was involved.
Or maybe it was prayer.
Morgan Mathews was born in Athens and grew up in the small, closely knit town of Pomeroy. Blood tests when she was an infant revealed that Mathews had a rare genetic disorder, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. The condition, which is inherited by children only if both parents carry the gene for it, affects about one in 1,500 to one in 3,500 individuals of European ancestry, according to the website of the National Institutes of Health.
"About 10 percent of infants with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency develop liver disease, which often causes yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes ," the website states. "Approximately 15 percent of affected adults develop liver damage due to the formation of scar tissue in the liver."
Morgan Mathews was on a low-salt or no-salt diet and many medications from infancy.
"I pretty much grew up taking medicine," she said last week.
She made visits to Children's Hospital every six months and wasn't allowed to participate in contact sports while growing up. But that was OK; there were no contact sports for girls in Pomeroy.
"My body was growing weaker over senior year," Mathews recalled.
Nevertheless, she enrolled at Marshall University in West Virginia, only to become too ill by the Thanksgiving break to return to classes.
After two days of testing at Ohio State University Medical Center, Mathews was placed on the waiting list for a liver transplant. It was late in 2000, and she was 18 years old. The odds didn't look good for her seeing 19.
Mathews had pretty much always known that the end result of her alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency would mean she'd have to have a new liver, but finding herself on that waiting list was a shock, nevertheless.
"It was never real," she recalled. "It was scary, knowing that a complete stranger had to say yes to organ donation."
As rare as the circumstances were that left Morgan Mathews in need of an organ transplant, the circumstances of her getting one were just as unlikely.
Back in Pomeroy, prayer circles formed to ask that Mathews receive the replacement liver she needed to survive, and among those praying was a family friend, her fourth-grade teacher. Another member of the teacher's church was dealing with her own family tragedy at the time after a young cousin in Canton was involved in a traffic accident.
Jordan Daniel Ayers was 17 at the time of the crash. He was pronounced brain dead by the time they got him to the hospital. Contacted by the teacher's fellow church member in Pomeroy, the youth's family consented to a direct donation of his healthy liver to Mathews.
Against long odds, the two proved to be a good match.
"It's usually not going to work, and it did," Mathews said of direct organ donations.
After only about two and a half months on the waiting list, she underwent transplant surgery. Examining the liver they removed, Mathews said that the doctors later told her she only had about two weeks to live.
"It's such a precious gift," Mathews said, of the organ she received and the new lease on life it provided her.
Mathews went home after 10 days. She remembers holding a pillow to herself, where the stitches were.
"I truthfully didn't know how bad I felt until I started to feel better," Mathews said.
That fall, she enrolled at Hocking College, earning an associate degree in culinary arts. Mathews moved on to attend Ohio State University where she received a bachelor of science degree in recreational studies. She majored in therapeutic recreation.
Today, Morgan Mathews works at the OSU Medical Center, helping traumatic brain injury patients to recover. She is often accompanied at work by her certified therapy dog, Bella. The dog helps out with all kind of patients at the center, encouraging some to get up and walk in order to take her for a stroll, others to work through speech therapy so they can talk to Bella and still others to go through physical therapy by brushing the dog.
"She's just there for companionship for a lot of patients," Mathews said.
Around Thanksgiving every year, to mark the anniversary of the illness that precipitated her transplant surgery, Mathews sends the family of Jordan Ayers a package containing mementos of the year she has just lived, thanks to the organ donation. If she got a T-shirt for running in a race, it goes in the box. If she had her picture appear in the paper, it goes in the box.
Mathews includes a letter, as well.
Every Feb. 26, on the anniversary of her surgery, Mathews sends the family of her donor tulips. They're her favorite flower.
Mathews met the family of Jordan Ayers at a Lifeline of Ohio candlelight vigil in April 2006. It was, she said simply, a profoundly moving experience.
"Overwhelming," Mathews said. "Exciting. I didn't want to leave them when it was over.