Dave Rasdal/SourceMedia Group News
CORALVILLE — Julie Olson returned to live and work in San Francisco before settling, once again, in Iowa.
She has visited Mexico, Madagascar, Africa.
She has met Oprah Winfrey, produced fashion illustrations for Diane Von Furstenberg and built up a growing freelance art business.
All because, 20 years ago, when Julie was 34 and dying of diabetes, she received a kidney and pancreas transplant.
“I’d be dead,” Julie says, matter-of-factly, squinting her eyes for emphasis. “I would not have lived to be 40.”
But Julie is alive, vibrant and optimistic, thanks to the family of a 25-year-old Colorado girl killed in an automobile accident who donated her organs. Julie celebrated the July 27 anniversary with family, friends, and Paul, her husband of 22 years.
“I want to do my part to promote organ donation,” Julie says.
She could be a poster child for second chances — and third ones, too.
You see, no matter how good a transplant makes you feel, recovery always continues. Julie’s anti-rejection medication contributed to heart disease due to diabetes. She was a visual artist going blind when, in 2005, in San Francisco, she had triple heart bypass surgery.
“There have been other problems but, on a scale of one to ten, after the transplant, no big deal,” she says.
Just the elation Julie felt lifts her spirits even now, as helium balloons floating toward the ceiling nearby remind her of the celebration party.
Five years before the transplant, while living in New York City, Julie had an out-of-body experience as her temperature spiked to 104 and a raging infection coursed through her blood. A diabetic since age 12, she would soon need kidney dialysis and might want to consider an organ transplant.
Moving to West Liberty with Paul, an Independence native who was a West Branch mail carrier at the time, Julie experienced major blood sugar swings. She registered with the United Network of Organ Sharing and six months later had a new kidney and pancreas.
Immediately, Julie’s kidney function became near normal and her blood sugar level dropped. She no longer had to take shots of insulin. She was diabetic free.
“The minute I woke up,” she says, “I felt whole.”
In 1996, after starting a freelance art career that included Carnival Cruises, Revlon and Walt Disney as clients, Julie Johnson, as she goes by professionally, illustrated “Make the connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life” for Oprah. She met Oprah at the book’s unveiling.
Julie itched to return to San Francisco where she’d grown up. At first, buying a house in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in 2003 seemed like a dream come true. Her freelance career was booming and Paul had a great job as a project manager for a house painting company.
But the high cost of living and allure of the city — “I don’t need distractions, I’ve had enough” — prompted their move to Coralville in 2008.
As a spiritual person — Julie met Paul at a religious retreat in New York City — she loves Iowa, saying it’s an acronym for “In Oneness With All,”
For five years Julie corresponded with her donar’s family, learning among other things that she loved woolly caterpillars. Not long ago, on a bicycle ride with Paul, they were stopped by a woolly caterpillar crawling across their path.
“I knew it was a sign,” Julie says, a tear coming to her eye. “That’s Gina.”