Niles woman thriving after double organ transplant

Published 9:14 am Wednesday, March 24, 2004

By By JAMES COLLINS / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- After a double organ transplant last June, diabetes was erased from Jo Ann Harrison's life and so were the many problems the disease brought to her life.
The Niles woman suffered years of serious health complications from diabetes and the recent kidney and pancreas transplant has helped her to get on track for a healthier life.
Harrison, 50, was first diagnosed with diabetes in 1971 at the age of 17. Soon after the complications began to dominate her life.
Those complications include almost losing her son in a premature pregnancy, four laser eye surgeries, several hospitalizations and finally kidney failure.
In the summer of 2001, she learned her kidneys were failing when she was diagnosed with End Stage Renal Disease. Her doctor recommended she register with an organ donor list for a kidney and pancreas transplant.
Soon after that, Harrison's doctor recommended that she begin a dialysis, a process involving a machine to assist with the functions normally performed by a healthy kidney.
Harrison never wanted to get to this point and did not want to go through with dialysis.
While at a training session for the dialysis process, Harrison fled the class in fear.
Her husband, Butch, and her doctor encouraged her to go through with dialysis by telling her the importance of the process and that there was always the possibility that things could improve in the future.
Harrison said the dialysis consumed her life for a year and a half. She had to complete the fluid exchange process once every day at 2 p.m. and then again each night.
About once every other month, Harrison would call the hospital to check on the status of the organ donor list.
On June 23, 2003, Harrison knew she was number two on the list and called the hospital to inquire about possible donors.
The nurse said it is just too hard to tell and told her "it could be today, it could be another six months."
Later that day while she was administering her 2 p.m. dialysis, Harrison saw the hospital's number on the caller ID.
She thought it was regarding information on a website to help people who are waiting for organ transplants, but she was "speechless" when she found out they had a donor match for both a kidney and a pancreas.
She and her husband drove to the hospital at Northwestern University that night. Harrison said she was an emotional mess on the drive to Chicago.
After a successful surgery, Harrison asked for a chaplain to be brought in so that she could pray for the family of the organ donor.
Though her diabetes was now gone, Harrison said the transplant was very difficult on her physically.
She needed her husband's assistance to complete routine activities like getting up out of a chair and climbing the stairs.
In January, Harrison began a stringent exercise routine at the Niles-Buchanan YMCA.
She said she has gone from being able to lift two and half pound weights to now lifting 30 pound weights.
"Last week, I noticed that I was taking two steps at a time on my way into the Y," she said. "I can't remember the last time I could do that. The exercise at the YMCA has been tremendous for me."
Harrison said she has thought about writing a book about her experiences to help those suffering with diabetes.
Harrison is glad diabetes is a thing of the past for her and said the experience has changed her life in many ways.