Gift of Life

Recipients of organ transplants share the heart and importance of choosing to donate

Written by Lorrie Crow Kimble | Photography by Candace Cook

Across the country, there are more than 120,000 men, women, and children waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Eighteen of these people die every day while waiting for an organ. Thousands more are waiting for life-saving tissue transplants. In Texas alone, there are more than 11,000 people waiting for an organ transplant, according to Laura Frnka-Davis the director of communications for Life Gift. The following are the experiences of two Cy-Fair organ recipients.

Donna Tovalin, Kidney Recipient
For seven years, through a strict no-salt, low-protein diet, and medication, Donna Tovalin was able to manage living with her left kidney shut down and her right kidney functioning at 50%. Diagnosed with Alport’s Syndrome, a rare, genetic disease that affects the kidneys, Tovalin had too much protein in her urine. But her time had run out. She was scheduled for a shunt to be put in her arm for kidney dialysis.

“I ended up not needing dialysis,” says Tovalin. “I was put in touch with the Transplant Clinic at Memorial Hermann.” Tovalin passed the qualifications to be a donor recipient, and was then asked to see if any family members were compatible.

“My oldest sister, Marybeth, volunteered right away. Since she was compatible, we scheduled the surgery as fast as we could,” says Tovalin. “She came down to Houston from Washington, but two days before the surgery, Memorial Hermann canceled saying that the test showed that the location of Marybeth’s kidney would be harmful to her and that she might not make it through the surgery.

A second sister, Cecelia, also volunteered. Unfortunately, Cecelia’s blood pressure was too high, so Tovalin was put on the kidney transplant list. “I got sicker and sicker,” says Tovalin. “I was afraid I was going to die.”

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Tovalin’s health was restored after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant from her sister

Sister to the Rescue
From December 2003 to March 2004, Tovalin remained on the list but was never alerted to a potential donor. The family asked if Cecelia could try to qualify again. The hospital consented. The transplant was scheduled for July 27, and the surgery was successful. Tovalin calls Cecelia her angel. “My sister was amazing. She gave me back my life.”

Afterward, Tovalin had to give herself insulin four times a day for two months. “I had to watch my diet, live delicately, and wear a mask,” she recalls. “I also had to follow up with the transplant center twice a week for blood draws three times a day. Cecelia had recovered amazingly, and she coached me on taking approximately 40 pills a day.” Today, Tovalin has to take 20 pills for the rest of her life and watch her diet and health very carefully.

A Silent Killer
Tovalin says that although her family was extremely supportive, it was sometimes difficult for others to understand her disease. “I looked fine on the outside, but I hurt on the inside,” she says. “Kidney disease is known as the silent killer.”

Unfortunately, another family member entered with a kidney disease concern. Isabella, Tovalin’s daughter who is a senior at Cy-Fair High School, had changed pediatricians when she was 13 and the doctors found out then that she, too, has Alport’s Syndrome. Because of early detection, she is able to take medicine and watch her diet to keep her protein levels down, says Tovalin.

Tovalin and her family, including her husband Jaime and son Jaimito, advocate for kidney disease awareness. This past March, Tovalin was selected by the National Kidney Foundation to attend the Kidney Patient Summit on Capitol Hill. “There is a kidney caucus, and I spoke to congressmen about joining it.”

Michael Nall, Heart Recipient
From the age of 36 to his current age of 63, Michael Nall has had five heart attacks. At age 58, he had end-stage heart failure. He had no choice but to have a whole heart transplant. “I was in the hospital on a machine that helped my heart pump,” says Nall. “I was on the pump for three months before a donor became available.

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Nall can enjoy life with his grandchildren after a heart transplant

Before his first heart attack, Nall had no pre-warning signs. “As a matter of fact, seven months prior, I had a full checkup with a stress test and the whole nine yards. I had passed everything,” he says. Nall admits it’s been stressful for his family since the first heart attack, and especially after the second and third heart attacks. News that there was a donor for him was exciting and scary at the same time. “It’s a pretty major event in life, especially knowing what we were going to go through. I was going to have a new life and watch my babies grow up.”

A Second Family
His daughters, Kelly and Lindsey, both Cy-Fair High School graduates, have given Nall and his wife of 43 years, Michele,four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. “I enjoy life and the grandkids,” says Nall. “If I wouldn’t have gotten a transplant, then I wouldn’t have been able to play with them.” Nall says he is fortunate to know the donor family very well. “When you acquire an organ, you have a second family with the donor’s family. They are glad to see that my kids still have dad and grandpa.”

Nall is in good health. “I have limits, but everything is wonderful.” So wonderful that, last July Nall participated in the Transplant Olympics in Houston and won two gold medals. “The donor’s mom put the medals on me,” he says. After finding out that Nall was in need of a transplant, his entire family was inspired to register as donors. “We have also worked a lot of events to show there is a shortage of organs, and what it means to be a donor – a great gift of love,” he says. “Without a donor, I wouldn’t have made it.”

It takes courage to be a donor. “My donor family feels part of their son is still alive, and his mother got to listen to her son’s heart,” he says. “It keeps their memories and makes me strive in my ability to survive.” Stress was more of a factor that triggered these heart attacks, Nall warns. “I had a high-profile job, traveled around the world, and was away from family. That puts a lot of pressure on a person.” Today, Nall says he is a whole new person. “I don’t stress,” he says. “My kids say, ‘Dad, you have changed so much’.” Nall agrees. “I don’t worry about things so much anymore.”

Matt Katsarelis, Liver Recipient
Cy-Fair Magazine publisher, Matt Katsarelis, was one of 30 float riders on the Donate Life float in Pasadena, California’s 2014 Rose Parade. As a liver recipient and organ donor advocate, Katsarelis was selected and sponsored by Donate 4 Life and was one of only three Texas riders of the 30 total invitees. The float’s “light up the world” message won best theme in the Rose Parade and featured a festival of colorful lanterns illuminating 30 grateful organ and tissue recipient float riders and 12 living organ donors who walked alongside the float.

A GRATEFUL RECIPIENT
After several years of struggling with end-stage liver disease, Katsarelis was on the transplant waiting list for more than two years before receiving a life-saving liver from a 19-year-old anonymous male donor. He has become a support system to others waiting for organs and a dedicated advocate for giving the gift of life. He also competed in the Transplant Games of America in Houston in July 2014. To sign up to be a donor, visit donatelifeamerica.org or select the organ donor option when obtaining or renewing your driver’s license. CFM

LORRIE CROW KIMBLE has been a registered organ donor since she was 18.