by Jennifer Gentile | The Sanford Herald
SANFORD — The past 20 years are particularly precious to Janet McCormick Harrington.
Harrington, 72, has spent much of that time in awe of nature — tending to her beloved cats, singing in her church choir and spending as much time as possible in her yard. According to family, the native of rural Harnett County, just outside of Broadway, is never happier than when she is pushing a lawn mower.
Reflecting on those two decades, Harrington knows they would not be possible without another person's life-saving gift. After being plagued by problems with her gall bladder and kidney stones, Harrington learned in 1989 that she had primary bilary cirrhosis — a disease that primarily affects women in their 50s and older.
Doctors told her the potential outcome in no uncertain terms.
“They gave her two choices,” recalled her daughter, Tori Ferguson. “You have a liver transplant, or you die. It's a real matter-of-fact situation that way.”
The organ transplant took place at Duke University Medical Center on July 15, 1991 — exactly 20 years ago this weekend. To mark that milestone, her family is hosting a “Gift for a Life” celebration, which begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at Temple Theatre.
The petite transplant survivor knows little about the woman whose liver she received beyond a couple of facts — the donor was in her early 30s, and she was killed in a car accident. Harrington's life hung in the balance at the time of the procedure, and jaundice was one sign that she was growing more sick by the day.
“I was yellower than a yellow crayon,” she joked.
She spent several weeks in the hospital after the surgery, and gradually, she said, “I just got better and better.” After trying three different anti-rejection medications, she is now pleased to be down to two pills a day.
“It took me a long time to get over it,” Harrington recalled of her recovery, “but once I did, I was OK.”
To her daughter, Harrington's post-transplant turnaround is nothing short of miraculous. She recalls that on an August day 20 years ago, she drove her mother home “a new woman.”
“One thing my brother and I noticed is that she seemed to be a lot more feisty than she had been before,” Ferguson said. “There was definitely a different energy about her.”
Physically, there was no more abdominal swelling, which the disease had caused. The healing, recovering and adjusting are now only a memory, but the gratitude for Harrington's life endures.
“The praise goes not only to the surgeons and those able to perform such a feat,” Ferguson said, “but [also] the people who selflessly give of their organs.”
With the Temple celebration, Ferguson said she wants to embrace organ donors, recipients and their families, and also to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation.
“You can hear about it and support it,” she said, “but when you're involved, then your perspective on organ donation really changes.”
Half of the event proceeds will be contributed toward Carolina Donor Services' education and outreach initiatives. According to Taylor Anderton, the agency's community development coordinator, “There are definitely a lot more folks waiting for livers than have received them.”
Nationwide, she added, 16,278 people are waiting for a liver transplant. Between Jan. 1, 1988 and April 30, 2011, 109,126 liver transplants were performed in the United States.
Thanks to technological advancements and developments in the medical field, Anderton said more patients than ever are going on to live “great, fulfilling lives — and what we often see is a renewed zest for life.”
Citing Harrington's success story, Anderton said, “”We encourage everyone to look at this great family as a wonderful example of what it means to be an organ donor.”
The “Gift for a Life” event will feature entertainment by Blair Dougher, a Raleigh-based musician who performs a unique combination of pop, country and contemporary Christian. Dougher's CD is one of Harrington's favorites, and Ferguson said her performance is a fitting tribute for a deserving survivor.
“It's been a labor of love,” Ferguson said of the celebration. “The Sanford community has been really generous.” Several local businesses have contributed door prizes for the occasion, and donors, recipients and their families will receive special recognition.
Harrington is not eager to have the spotlight and smiles shyly at the thought of being an inspiration. Those who know her best see a fitting description of her life in a poem she penned called “Yellow Bonnets” — which appears in a poetry collection she published titled “A Warmer Touch.”
The poem not only conveys her passion for nature — but also the magic she sees in daffodils.
“Even in sorrow, sickness and loneliness, we need to plant our feet in a little soil,” she wrote, “and start over with promises of better days, higher hopes and fresh, new yellow bonnets.”