Today, Grand Forks resident Sally Jacobson is celebrating the birthday of her liver, which turns 90.
Such a celebration might seem strange, but also strange is the fact that the liver is older than Jacobson, who is 69.
Jacobson’s life was saved after she received a liver transplant from a much older donor in 2006. To honor the importance of donors, she’s speaking today at an Altru Hospital System event unveiling a new commemorative wall featuring 42 people in images located in the hospital’s lobby.
Among those highlighted is her granddaughter, Nora Elisa Kristvaag Pedersen, who died as an infant but whose parents had decided to allow her to be a donor.
The need for organ donation is great. As of this month, the number of people waiting for a liver transplant alone is 15,770 nationwide, followed only by the 100,019 waiting for a kidney transplant, according to LifeSource, an organ and tissue donation organization based in St. Paul. LifeSource is the organ procurement service for this region, and Altru is one of its hospital partners.
North Dakotans are happy to donate. An estimated 68 percent of residents with driver’s licenses have registered, almost double the national average, while 63 percent are registered in Minnesota, said Barb Nelson-Agnew, hospital liaison for LifeSource.
Since her transplant, Jacobson said she’s been trying to inform others about the importance of organ donation.
“I’ve done a lot of work to get the word out and I will continue to do that,” she said. “I think the message is so important.”
In August 2005, Jacobson thought nothing of her growing fatigue until a friend noticed her face had a yellow pallor, she said.
After months of increasing sickness and doctor appointments, and an emergency room visit that removed more than four liters of fluid from her right-side chest cavity, her health began to quickly decline. She found out later a chronic autoimmune hepatitis disease was the culprit, followed by cirrhosis of the liver, she said.
By the time she was placed on a waiting list for a liver transplant in late March 2006, she’d required more fluid removal and was a patient at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. They wanted her to stay there in case a liver was available, she said.
She was soon informed the healthy liver of an 82-year-old man was available because he’d died of a brain aneurysm. The operation had to be done quickly - liver transplants must occur within 24 hours of being removed from a donor’s body, according to LifeSource.
Jacobson didn’t need to be convinced. Weeks before, she’d told her doctor - the only one in the country at the time who transplanted older livers - that she would accept an older liver because she was so sick, she said.
“He said, ‘It might give you 15 years,’” she said. “At that point, 15 years sounded wonderful. My husband and I knew I maybe had a month to live.”
But three weeks after her transplant, tragedy struck.
She was still recovering from the surgery when she’d received the call that her granddaughter had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The girl’s parents had decided to allow their daughter to be a donor. Even though she could not actually donate, it was important her parents made the decision that she could, said Jacobson.
“They knew that without that liver, I wouldn’t have been there,” she said.
Jacobson has wasted no time since her transplant.
Since her health has restored, she’s traveled throughout the state telling her story to high school students, at conferences and at other events.
“I go wherever people want me to go and try to spread the message,” she said. “Plus, I believe in paying it forward.”
One of her proudest moments was contributing toward a new state law, she said. It requires public driver education instructors to include information about organ donation in their curriculum, she said.
“One of my main messages is that you need to tell your family what your decision is, whether it’s to be a donor or not,” she said. “People need information about it so they can make an informed decision.”
Jacobson said she’s not eligible for another transplant once she reaches age 70 next month. However, a few years ago her doctor said her liver might last another decade - one transplant from a 92-year-old was successful, she said.
If her liver fails, she prefers an available liver to go to someone younger, she said.
“I’ve had a good life,” she said. “Every day is a blessing that I wouldn’t have had without my transplant.”
How to register as a donor
- Contact the local driver’s license office. Licensed drivers and ID card holders can register to be an organ and tissue donor by indicating the decision on their license. If you are a North Dakota and Minnesota resident who documents the decision, it is legally binding, according to LifeSource, a St. Paul-based organ and tissue donation organization.
- Go online. Residents of Minnesota can register online at www.donatelifemn.org, residents of North Dakota at apps.nd.gov/dot/dlts/dlos/donorChange.htm.
- Tell your family. LifeSource encourages residents to share their decision with their family. For more information on how to register, and general information on the donation process, visit www.life-source.org.