Transplant recipient honors donor’s memory

Every day, Jeannine McKinney thinks of a 12-year-old boy she never knew.

When the Ohio family lost a son, McKinney got the chance to live.

On June 15, 2011, McKinney received a four-organ transplant that saved her life. Since then, she does all she can to give back in any way possible and honor the boy and his family.

McKinney recently celebrated the fourth anniversary of the successful operation by helping coordinate a blood drive with the Indiana Donor Network. The blood drive collected 24 units of blood — enough to save 72 lives, according to the donor network. And it honored the family of the boy, whose name she doesn’t even know.

Fifteen years ago, McKinney was diagnosed with Caroli disease, a rare liver disorder that causes the widening of bile ducts. The disease tends to be more common in Asia and is often inherited, but no one on either side of her family had any history of liver disease. Doctors told her she was born with it, but symptoms did not show up until she was in her 30s and pregnant with her second son, who is now 15.

She underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and eventually had surgery at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis that removed a cyst-filled half of her liver and her gall bladder. Her health was somewhat stable for the next 10 years, but then her condition worsened.

She needed another surgery to clean the remaining half of her liver and install a stent and tube to drain excess bile into a bag she wore every day.

“I carried that bag with me everywhere for a whole year before I had my transplant, even when I was working,” McKinney said. “I always had to hide it and pin it.”

Doctors told her that her liver was going to fail, and they began planning a transplant. And since organs around the liver sometimes fail after a transplant, she also would need a new stomach, pancreas and intestines. With blood type O-positive, McKinney was a high priority on the national donor list.

While O-positive is the most common blood type, patients can receive only O-positive or O-negative.

After a year of waiting to find a viable match for her blood type and body size, the day came. The Ohio boy was confirmed to be a good match for her. The multiple organ transplant was a success.

The road to recovery hasn’t been easy. McKinney initially had problems with her body rejecting the new organs, which weakened her immune system. Now, she’s doing better.

“I go get lab work done twice a month, and how I feel just depends on what my lab work results are,” she said. “I’m doing pretty good, though.”

Ever since, McKinney has been looking for a way to somehow repay the gift given to her. She plans an annual activity to celebrate the anniversary of her transplant and honor the family of her donor, whom she knows little about.

All she knows about her donor is his age, gender and state of residence. The Indiana Donor Network only releases that information to protect the privacy of donors and their families. Recipients are allowed to write to the families through the donor network to express their gratitude, but it is left up to the families to decide if they want to maintain contact or eventually meet up.

“I’ve written them, but I have not heard anything back,” McKinney said. “But, with their son being only 12 years old when he died, I can understand their grief. My youngest son was 11 when I had the transplant, and a child at that age would be hard to lose.”

She thinks about the boy and his family daily and how their sacrifice allowed her to continue her life with her husband Scott, and sons Justin, 23, and Jacob, 15. And she got to be there for the birth of her first granddaughter last year.

“I’m so thankful for them giving me a second chance at life,” she said. “My oldest son now has a 16-month-old daughter, and I am so glad I get to be a part of her life.”

McKinney also gives back by volunteering to recruit organ donors for the Indiana Donor Network at public events. The past four years have given her a new appreciation for life and its value. She’s savoring every bit of it and doing what she can to help others who are in the same situation she was in four years ago.

“I just live life one day at a time now, and I don’t let a lot of things stress me out,” she said. “It’s not worth it to me to get stressed out any more. “