Living For Today
Carol O’Brien has two birthdays.
“October 21 – the day I was born, and June 11 – the day I was given a second chance at life,” the 53-year-old says, with a shy smile.
Six years ago the longtime Truckee resident went in for a routine knee operation only to learn she was suffering from Hepatitis C, a deadly virus she’d contracted some 30 years prior from a blood transfusion she had received after giving birth to her daughter.
“They told me the disease was so advanced that I would need a liver transplant within the next five years or I would die,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not like you can just run out and get a new liver, though.”
She immediately began a rigorous 16-month chemotherapy therapy in hopes of wiping out the disease, and for awhile doctors believed it was working.
She still cringes when she remembers her body’s violent reaction to the poison coursing through her veins.
“The chemo was the worst – oh that nausea,” said O’Brien, who had to be put on a feeding tube at one point. “It was like being on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean with no land in site.”
It wasn’t long before a liver biopsy revealed the doctors’ efforts had been unsuccessful, though. O’Brien’s disease had quickly evolved into advanced cerosis and a large malignant tumor in her liver.
“That’s when I went to San Francisco and met with the liver transplant team,” she said. “They immediately put my name on a waiting list, but also told me that I’d have to be near death – hospitalized for multiple organ failure – because of the high demand for livers, before I’d be eligible for a transplant. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. That was just unacceptable.”
It was then that O’Brien and her daughter hopped on the Internet and began researching the nation’s hospitals for a facility with a different transplant policy.
That research ended at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where physicians were piloting a new transplant program.
“After an extensive series of tests and interviews, they gave me a pager that I was to carry with me at all times,” she said. “From then on, all I could do was wait.”
For two and a half years, O’Brien waited, but the pager never went off.
Meanwhile, her health continued to spiral downward.
But on the evening of June 10 O’Brien’s luck turned when her 6-year-old grandson, Cole, had a premonition of sorts.
“Mommy, grandma’s gonna get her liver tonight,” he told O’Brien’s daughter as she was tucking him in for bed.
Not even an hour later, at 9:30 p.m., the pager went off.
An 18-year-old boy in Tucson had been killed in a car accident. The driver’s license he’d been carrying at the time just happened to display an orange donor sticker.
“With the organs from that one boy, eight different people would be saved that night,” she said. “That boy’s spirit is so strong, I can feel his presence inside of me every day.”
That young man wouldn’t be the only savior O’Brien had that night, for if it hadn’t been for Rob Loder, an Incline Village resident and pilot, who volunteered his services to O’Brien, she never would have made it to Scottsdale in time for the surgery.
“I called Rob and within an hour he met me at the Truckee Airport where his twin engine Cherokee was parked,” she said. “He said he would have me there within three and a half hours and it was the smoothest plane ride I’d ever had in life. He was so wonderful.”
O’Brien met Loder through a program called “Air Life Line,” a company out of Sacramento that finds pilots for just such occasion. She was his first medical patient passenger.
By 7:30 a.m., O’Brien was in the operating room.
Today, after several weeks in a transplant recovery facility, she’s back in Truckee, which has been her home for the last 30 years.
“You can bet I’m going to be one of the biggest supporters of organ donation from now on,” she said. “There’s 19,000 people right now waiting for livers. Only 8,000 livers were donated last year, and now, roughly three people die every day waiting for a transplant.”
O’Brien talks of wanting to start up a transplant support group in Truckee.
She also credits the people in town as being her biggest support group over the last few years.
“I couldn’t have gotten through this without them,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I had more than 50 cards from people when I was in the hospital and have received more than 100 phone calls since I’ve been home.”
Both the Truckee Lionesses and Truckee Lions, both of which O’Brien is a member, have picked up the tab for much of her travel expenses.
“I’m looking at as much as $500,000 in medical bills, which is why some of the Lionesses are looking into holding a fund-raiser for me in the upcoming months to help with some of these bills,” she said.
Above all else, O’Brien said she’s ready to start enjoying a whole new life.
“I know God has a purpose for me now. I may not know what that purpose is just yet, but I can’t wait to find out,” she said.
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As of Wednesday, 78,186 doses have been administered to Nevada County residents, according to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Dashboard.