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Transplant recipients celebrate a second chance

August 1, 2018

For many of the people at Sunday’s Gift of Life Transplant House annual patient and donor family picnic, the day was to celebrate a literal gift of life.

Julie Heimbach, a Mayo Clinic transplant surgeon, volunteered to greet visitors at the park and spotted her patient, Dwight Bacon, who received a new liver June 22.

“Great to see you, Mr. Bacon,” Heimbach said, greeting her patient. “Are you feeling OK?”

“I couldn’t be better,” he said.

Bacon, of Decorah, Iowa, had bile duct cancer but is now back at work and living a normal life.

“I am real lucky,” he said. “Blessed, really.”

The annual event drew more than 800 people to Soldiers Memorial Field. Most attending were recipients of life-saving transplants. Doctors and nurses also attended the event to see how patients are doing outside of a clinical setting.

“It’s really a good reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Heimbach said, adding most times they meet recipients when they’re gravely ill.

“Now they’re looking great,” Heimbach said. “That’s the most remarkable thing.”

The Gift of Life Transplant House is a not-for-profit organization that provides a recovery home for organ, bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients and their families. The event started more than 20 years ago as an informal potluck get-together of a couple dozen people, said Lori Ewolot, administrative director of the Mayo Clinic transplant center. Donors also attended the event.

Melissa Hansmann, of Hugo, attended as both a donor and recipient. She received a stem cell transplant — from herself. Before beginning chemotherapy to treat her Hodgkins lymphoma, Hansmann had her own stem cells extracted and later transplanted after concluding treatment in 2014.

Hansmann said it was a long recovery, but last year came to the picnic with her family to celebrate life. She returned this year for the same reason.

“This is a huge celebration of life,” she said. “This is our second chance.”

Hansmann said she tries to spend as much time with her family since receiving her second chance at life.

Sandi Guge, of Estherville, Iowa, has been attending the picnics for ten years after receiving a new liver in July 2007. Guge has been healthy and living a normal life since, she said.

“You come to renew the connections,” she said of the event. “And maybe you can encourage people to be a donor.”

Guge said she’s grateful someone was a willing donor so that she could continue to live a full life.

Ginger Plumbo, of Mayo Clinic, said organ transplants can make a dramatic difference in a person’s life and literally save peoples lives.

“A transplant can bring a person from pretty near death to living a full life,” she said.

She and Ewolot said they encourage people to consider organ donation.

“There’s a great need for it,” Plumbo said.

People can sign up at donatelife.org.

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