Tom Archdeacon: Two women making the most of their gift of life

Karen Murphy thought there was a good chance she was going to die.

The University of Dayton graduate and longtime Springfield-area social worker was diagnosed over two decades ago with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts that often leads to liver failure. Although she’d continued to work and raise a family, the disease took a steep toll over the years.

It likely was instrumental in the cytomegalovirus (CMV) she contracted when she was pregnant with her third child, a boy she named John, who died two days after he was born.

She developed ulcerative colitis, her bowel was removed and myriad other problems surfaced. Finally, on New Year’s Day 2010, her family came downstairs in the morning and found her sitting on the couch, barely breathing and unresponsive.

She was rushed to Springfield’s Community Hospital and the family was called in for last rites. But her devoted husband, well versed in her condition, disagreed with those who said she’d had a stroke and believed instead she was suffering from hepatic encephalopathy, a condition where her liver wasn’t filtering out toxins that were going straight to her brain.

He insisted she go to the Cleveland Clinic, which ended up sending a jet for her.

Although it turned out John had been right and she was revived, it became more obvious than ever: If Karen Murphy was going to survive much longer, she needed a new liver.

She had been on the waiting list for a few months but often was too sick to even be considered for a transplant.

According to American Liver Foundation statistics, there are 17,000 on the waiting list in America right now and every year over 1,500 people die waiting for a new liver.

“I never prayed for a new liver,” she said quietly. “I didn’t feel that was right because it would mean I was praying for someone to die so I could live. So I just prayed that I’d be able to accept whatever was supposed to happen.”

And that’s what prompted the goodbye letters.

After that she found small pleasures wherever she could.

“My favorite place to eat is Fazoli’s and every Friday my husband took me there for dinner,” she said. “I always had to get the same thing: a kid’s spaghetti and marinara sauce on the side. I’d measure out just two teaspoons of the sauce, so I didn’t get too much sodium and they’d make me a dried breadstick to go with it.”

It was after one such meal on an April night in 2010 that Karen’s cell phone rang.

She took the call, listened in disbelief and began weeping.

“They have a liver for me,” she finally told her puzzled husband. “We’ve got to go to Cleveland … now.”

As she thought back on that moment now, her eyes began to glisten: “It was just so surreal. It was something I never thought would happen.”

They rushed home, grabbed the bag she’d long kept packed for this very moment and, as a friend prayed with her over the phone, she and John drove to the Cleveland Clinic. Soon the rest of the family — including daughters Kaity and Allison and son Joe — showed up and began a vigil in the waiting room.

The 12-hour surgery was a success and afterward, as soon as Karen woke up, she was met by one of her surgeons, Dr. Koji Hashimoto.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Are you enjoying your new life?’ ” she recalled. “What an awesome question to ask someone who got a second chance at life.”

And though she’s been answering that question in many ways the past six years, she’s never done it more emphatically than she likely will in the coming six-day span beginning Friday.

The 52-year-old Murphy is competing in the 2016 Transplant Games of America held in Cleveland. A multi-sport festival similar to the Olympics, the Games are for people who have undergone lifesaving transplant surgeries and living donors.

There will be over 6,000 participants from across the nation and several other countries. Team Ohio has entered 725.

One of 10 Clark County participants (Montgomery County has 20), Murphy is competing in 5K and 20K cycling races and team volleyball and tennis, both singles and doubles.

Her doubles partner is another liver transplant recipient, 26-year-old Cynthia Irwin, a Greenon High and Wright State grad who lives in Fairborn, is getting her master’s degree at Antioch University Midwest in Yellow Springs and teaches special education at Indian Valley Middle School.

Yet, for all the ceremony, the teamwork and competition of the Games, there will be one thing there that eclipses all of that for Karen.

For the first time, she’ll meet the husband — and hopefully the children — of the late Canal Fulton woman whose liver she received.

“I think about her every day,” Karen said as he blue eyes again filled with tears. “This is all about her. I have no story to tell without her.

“My story would have ended six years ago.”

Contacting the family

She said her donor’s name was Terri and that she was a woman in her 60s who was married to her husband, Robert, for 36 years.

Karen doesn’t use their last name at his request.

“He told me she was getting ready for work and had a brain aneurysm,” Karen said quietly. “She never woke up.”

She said it had been the woman’s decision to be an organ donor, although initially her husband didn’t agree with it.

After her transplant, Karen wrote a letter to the then-anonymous donor’s family through Lifebanc Ohio. It was up to them if they chose to respond.

“I got a letter back from Robert pretty quickly and for a while we communicated through Lifebanc,” Karen said. “Then we agreed to exchange phone numbers and he called. We talked a long time that day and as we did, it kind of felt like I’d known him forever.”

They developed a bond, she said: “I think the more he got to know me, the better he felt about the choices he’d made. He’s glad to know I’m doing well and always tells me now: ‘I think my wife would have liked you.’ He’s said he thinks his wife’s gift went to the right person.

“This is the guy who now sends me a text on Mother’s Day that says ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’ It’s pretty awesome. And I’m Facebook friends with their children, as well.

“I think it’s helped him move on with his life. For him to agree to come to the Games is really a big deal. It shows he really sees it now. He knows first-hand what organ donation does.

“His wife saved my life.”

‘It was meant to be’

Cynthia “Cindy” Irwin was born with biliary atresia, a rare disease of the liver and bile ducts.

“It’s basically sclerosis of the liver and they don’t know the cause,” she said. “When I was younger, I was in and out of the hospital, getting all kinds of procedures done to prolong my life. But there’s no cure.”

When she was 13 and in the eighth grade, doctors told her she had to have a transplant.

On May 9, 2003 she got her new liver at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. She heard her donor was a girl her age, but has found out nothing more. Her letter to the family got no response.

After her transplant, she still had plenty of struggles, she said:

“A misconception I think a lot of people have is that ‘OK, things are going to get magically better right away.’ You’re never really out of the woods all the way. If it’s one year in or 13, you can still have rejection and along the way you can have any kind of complication.

“For a while I had diabetes and come this November, it will be five years that I developed CMV retinitis. It attacked my eyesight and I went blind in my right eye.”

She said some of the toughest challenges were mental and emotional:

“After my transplant I was going into my freshman year in high school and, like most girls, you want to look pretty and be thin. But I was on steroids and bloated and when you’re with other kids, you learn some hard life lessons. You grow up quick.”

Through it all she said she was blessed to have “great parents who were upfront and honest with everything. We’ve always been a team.’”

As she got older, she began to blossom.

She played varsity tennis at Greenon and in the years since high school, she’s kept fit working in gyms and running 5K races around the state.

She said she happened to be perusing the Internet not long ago when she came across the Transplant Games and discovered the biennial event would be held in Cleveland this summer.

She went to a Team Ohio fund-raiser at Wright State and that’s where she met Karen, who had learned of the Games a while back when she was introduced to Chris Klug, the U.S. Olympic snowboarder who had had a liver transplant and went on to win a bronze medal at the Salt Lake City OIympics in 2002.

Karen and Cindy discovered each was from Springfield, had had liver transplants and was partial to tennis.

“She told me she needed a doubles partner and pretty soon it was ‘OK, we’re doing this together,’ ” Cindy said. “It was like it was meant to be.”

Propelled by grit

As she sat on the big front porch of her home on Stratford Place the other day, Karen reminisced about her childhood on this same street:

“My mom still lives down on the corner, that’s where I grew up. And my brother lives around the (other) corner.”

While she can look out on a lot of good memories from this perch, there are some sobering ones, too.

“Waiting for my transplant, I remember sitting out here and seeing all these people walking by or riding bikes and jogging. I could do none of it. The only way I could even get upstairs was to crawl.

“I used to think, ‘I wish I could just take a walk out here.’ ”

After her transplant — as soon as she could talk — the first thing she said she did was call her brother Mike, who was watching the house and her dog back home:

‘I said, ‘Mike, it’s Karen!’ He didn’t answer and then I heard him crying. I said, ‘Mike, I’m good. Why you crying?’ And he said, ‘Because for the first time in a long time you really sound like my sister.’ ”

Just a few months after her transplant — enduring the complications that followed — she pushed herself to be at her son Joe’s first Catholic Central football game. Although still fitted with a pair of drainage tubes coming from her liver, she bought a big Vera Bradley “hipster bag” to conceal them and at halftime slipped into a souvenir stand to tend to her medical needs and give herself an injection.

Nobody noticed.

It’s that kind of grit and determination that continues to propel her now.

Sitting on the porch the other day, she wore a Tree of Life pendant on a chain — a gift from Ireland from her husband — and a sweat-dampened t-shirt.

She had just finished biking 12 miles and before the day was done, she and Cindy would also practice tennis for some 90 minutes at the Springfield High courts.

She also has tennis training sessions with Dick Miller, the Springfield High coach, or at Dayton Center Courts, the Trotwood facility that now supports her Transplant Games effort.

Wednesday night she threw out the first pitch at a Champion City Kings game in Springfield. The college summer baseball team is one of her sponsors, too.

She’s excited to take part in the Games — which open with an Olympic-like parade of athletes that includes the donors and their families — and especially to finally meet Robert.

“I have no illusions about what I’ll do at the Games, but I would like to win one medal just so I can give it to my donor’s family,” she said softly. “I want them to know I’m trying to live life fully and am not just sitting around. I want them to know I’m making the most of their gift.”

She doesn’t need a medal for that.

She showed that long ago.

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