A daughter’s perspective
LifeSource’s Kathleen Meyer shares her story of growing up with a mother in need of an organ transplant
The following is the second in a three-part series related to kidney and pancreas transplant recipient Michelle Bejbl Thomas. The series now continues with the story of Kathleen Meyer, Michelle’s daughter and a LifeSource marketing specialist. The final part in the series will feature a story on Elsa Fischer, who agreed to donate one of her kidneys to Michelle.
April has been designated as Donate Life Month in an effort to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. Various local regional and national activities are held throughout the month to promote the gift of donation and also celebrate those lives saved through organ and tissue donation. Click HERE for information on how you can make an impact through blood or organ donation.
If Michelle Bejbl Thomas ever lamented the fact she was a type 1 diabetic and in need of a new kidney and pancreas she certainly didn’t do it in front of her daughter.
“Mom always pretended everything was fine,” said Kathleen Meyer, Michelle’s daughter and a marketing specialist at LifeSource. “She put on a strong face even though she was very sick.”
That strong face was never more evident than on Dec. 7, 2004, when Michelle had her kidney transplant surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
“Even while she drove to the hospital she kept saying everything was going to be fine,” Kathleen said. “She was doing everything she could to make me not worry about her.”
The kidney transplant came more than a quarter-century after Michelle was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 15. No matter how positive Michelle remained, it couldn’t dismiss the fact her body was deteriorating. By the early 2000s doctors told her a kidney transplant would be necessary, but finding a donor proved to be a challenge, Kathleen recalled.
“I remember it took a pretty long time before a match was found,” Kathleen said. “It was difficult [to see her wait for a donor] because my mom wouldn’t let me get tested. She told me that I was too young and it was too great of a health risk. I understood, but it was still difficult.”
After a series of tests, doctors eventually determined Michelle’s childhood friend, Elsa Fischer, was a compatible match.
“I’m so grateful for what Elsa did,” Kathleen said. “She had never had a major surgery or even been under anesthesia before. It was amazing for her to do this.”
Elsa had been in Kathleen’s life since she was born, but this generous gift helped form a close friendship with Kathleen that remains to this day. Kathleen said she and her mother frequently join Elsa and her partner, Paige, for dinner or drinks, and Elsa and Paige were readers in Kathleen’s wedding ceremony last year.
A few years after the kidney transplant, doctors told Michelle it was time to replace her pancreas. The helpless feeling Kathleen experienced while her mother waited for a kidney transplant returned as doctors searched for a pancreas. To make matters worse, on two separate occasions in December 2007 doctors called Michelle to the hospital for the pancreas transplant only to later determine the organ was not a proper match.
“It was awful,” Kathleen recalled of the two false alarms. “I felt so bad for my mom because on the second occasion, she was prepped for surgery and put under anesthesia only to have the doctors wake her up and tell her [the pancreas] wasn’t a close enough match.”
With Michelle near the top of the pancreas transplant list she received another call that month from her doctors about a possible match. The third time was the charm and Michelle had a successful pancreas transplant at the end of 2007. Kathleen, however, wasn’t there to lend her support.
“I was in New York on vacation when my grandparents called me and told me my mom was in surgery,” Kathleen said. “I was upset I didn’t know beforehand, but I know she didn’t want me to be worried while I was on my trip.
“I was super happy that she had the surgery and glad that it was over, but sad I wasn’t there for her.”
While the diabetes may have prevented Michelle from being able to take on certain activities, it did not stop her from having movie nights at home with Kathleen, which turned out to be treasured time together, according to Kathleen.
“We both love horror movies,” Kathleen said. “If my mom wasn’t up for going out or if she was hooked up to the dialysis machine we’d stay in and watch a movie. It was fun mother-daughter time.”
As one might expect, Kathleen is a staunch supporter of blood and organ donation and diabetes awareness. Her job with LifeSource enables her to spread the importance of blood and organ donation via the blood center’s social media channels. Kathleen is also an advocate of Donate Life America and a previous participant in the Tour de Cure, a cycling event which raises funds for the American Diabetes Association.
“One organ donor can save up to eight lives,” Kathleen said. “My mom wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for organ donation. I can’t imagine being a teen growing up without my mom. I’m very thankful for Elsa and for all organ donors.”