Like many people who receive an anonymous gift, Lynne Emminizer has a need to let people know what it means to her.
Some 20 years ago this past Father’s Day weekend, Emminizer, who lives in Swann Keys, received a liver transplant at John Hopkins in Baltimore, Md. She has recently rented display space on Roxana Fire Hall’s outside marquee, thanking her donor’s family for the gift of life.
“It really does work,” she said, tearing up. “It’s the best gift — the gift of life.”
Emminizer was a healthy woman until abut 10 years before her transplant. Then one day she woke up itching. After 10 years of going in and out of the hospital and seeing doctors, she was ultimately diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis, an autoimmune disease of the liver.
“When I say itching, I mean I had to have my clothes specially made,” she said. “The bottom of my feet itched so bad I would scratch them on the carpet until we needed to get new carpet.” She also had jaundice so bad that not only had her eye whites turned yellow, but her skin had taken on a yellow tone, as well.
Eventually, as her condition worsened, her doctors started talking about a transplant. After two episodes of severe bleeding, she was put on the list for a liver transplant.
“Back then, you had a beeper – that was your lifeline. Today, it’s like you have to be at death’s door, in intensive care. But I was still walking around. I just carried the beeper.”
She did have one false start, though. And waiting even longer, one day she got the call that maybe the donor program had a liver for her. But the way that day started out brings her to the second part of her message — the first being, “Be an organ donor,” and the second, “Let your family know your wishes.”
“A lot of people have ‘organ donor’ on their driver’s licenses, but it is the utmost importance that your family is aware of your decision, because the family has the final say.”
Because Emminizer’s liver came from a person who was not an official organ donor, it took the family, which had experienced an unexpected loss of their loved one, all day to make the decision. Ultimately, they decided to donate the organ, and it is a decision that changed the course of Emminizer’s life forever.
“It really saves lives,” she said of organ donation. “I never thought I’d see my daughter get married. I just went to my grandson’s bar mitzvah. My other grandson just graduated. I wouldn’t be sitting her talking to you.”
She put a letter to the family on file but, because they wished to remain anonymous, she will never know if they will see it or not. Still, it’s just one of the ways she has tried to thank them and to bring awareness about the success of her surgery.
“Maybe they’ll see my sign, or read this article. It’s a miracle. I call it my birthday,” she said, of that day 20 years ago when she got a new lease on life.
Even beyond receiving her donated liver, Emminizer has been fortunate. She is a member of a liver transplant support group who called themselves “The Liver Rats,” and she is the last original member of the group remaining after 20 years. She said the original life expectancy for people who receive transplants is 20 years, but her doctor has said, “It was like my liver was born in me now.”
After a shaky start soon after her transplant, with a pulmonary embolism – a blood clot in the lung – she has had a relatively stress-free recovery and adaptation to her surgery and new liver. She was never a drinker and has always taken care of herself – things she said she believes aided in her relatively seamless recovery.
After her surgery, Emminizer worked with first-year medical residents with her doctor at John’s Hopkins’ University. She said she would come to the classroom as a test case and her doctor would describe all her symptoms, and they would have to guess her diagnosis. It was through those lectures that she learned how dire her fate might have been.
“I learned there that they had only given me three months to live,” she said. “I had thought it was six.”
Besides needing bloodwork every six months and anti-rejection medicine she will take for the rest of her life, Emminizer is as normal and healthy as can be – something her husband of almost 50 years can appreciate.
“Those first 10 years, it was back and forth to the hospital. It was hard. But it paid off. All the work and energy paid off, lucky for me!” said Gordon Emminizer.
He also said that it was hard emotionally for him and his daughter, because the doctors prepared them for the worst, something Lynne Emminizer said she didn’t even realize until now.
“They prepared us for her to die. They gave it like a 30 percent chance. But she fooled them all,” said Gordon Emminizer.
Lynne Emminizer is the proud mother of Jackie and has a son-in law, Rick, and two grandsons – Hunter, who is 18, and Holt, who is 13. In August, she and Gordon Emminizer will have been married for 50 years. Her 20 years is a milestone at Hopkins, as well as for Emminizer personally.
This Fourth of July, Emminizer was able to appreciate the fireworks and freedom as a healthy person with a new lease on life – something not lost on her as she remembers one Independence Day spent in the hospital, having a picnic lunch with her family while overlooking the fireworks across the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
“Please be an organ donor,” she implored. “It really works.”
Emminizer said she would like to again thank her donor’s family and her team at John’s Hopkins, many of whom she is still in contact with today, and she asked that anyone who needs further information call 1-800-641-HERO or visit The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland online at www.thellf.org.