Judy Russell: Adventures Post-Transplant

January 14th, 2011 | Author: Katelyn Turner

Judy Russell’s life changed on August 15th, 1999. At the time, she was at a transplant picnic in Madison, WI, with her husband, son and son’s friend, when a transplant coordinator, “came up to me, slapped me on the back and asked, ‘Judy Russell, how’d you like a lung?’

“I just about had to about pick my husband off the ground [we were so stunned],” Russell says.

That same day, Russell says she had to call the parents of her son’s friend to pick up the boys, while she and husband Jim went straight to the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic, where they starting prepping her for surgery.

Judy & Laurie Miske, donor mom who received one of Judy's shawls

Russell, who lives in Waukesha, WI, received her left lung transplant after being on the list for 52 days. She was diagnosed in 1998 (first having been diagnosed with asthma) but has never smoked a day in her life.

She says when they moved into their current house (in October 1996), she started noticing a shortness of breath.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a little overweight, maybe that’s causing it.’ Around that time I also had five exotic birds so right away my doctor pointed the finger at the birds and their dander as the culprit,” Russell says.

She was tested for numerous allergies, GERD, (had a Nissen fundoplication), and saw an ENT (ears, nose and throat specialist), etc. but nothing was found to be the cause of her breathlessness. It wasn’t until October 1998 when her pulmonologist first brought up the word “transplant.” Russell says that five months later, she had gone from working full time as a legal secretary to being confined to a wheelchair and on oxygen 24/7.

Russell has had three hospitalizations since her transplant; a CMV infection a month after her transplant, a cellulitis infection in 2008 and pneumonia in April 2010.

Post-transplant, Russell wants to let others know that she’s been able to live her life fully, contradicting the five-year survival rate.

“I want to show people there is life beyond five years,” she says.

In April 1999, about two hours after being released from the hospital, Russell attended a presentation by Mark Kistler (a children’s artist) with her son, complete with wheelchair and oxygen tank.  Mark said that he never had someone come directly from the hospital to see him.  As part of his program, he drew pictures on an overhead projector.  He drew a picture of a scuba diver with oxygen tanks, called it “Scuba Judy” and gave it to her.  Russell has been Scuba Judy ever since.

A big event for Russell was the summer 2010 US Transplant Games in Madison, where she walked 1.1. miles in a 5K Race for Organ, Eye & Tissue Donation. The highlight for Russell was attending the Donor Recognition Ceremony with Threads of Compassion.

“After the ceremony, my group presented over 650 comfort shawls to the donor families. That night, my sister, son and I attended a coffee house gathering and sat behind a table of women wearing the shawls. One of the women got up and told her story about her son, who had been a donor. After she spoke, she came over to our table and talked to my son who was working on a very unique shawl,” Russell says. “All of a sudden my son said to me, ‘Mom, isn’t that your shawl?’ Sure enough it was. I attach a special tag on my shawls that says, ‘Stitched with love by a grateful lung recipient.’ We talked about Threads of Compassion (a division of the Wisconsin Donor Network) and she is interested in helping make shawls with our group.”

Another poignant event for Russell was when she got to meet Keiko Matsui, a jazz pianist whom Russell listened to as part of her biofeedback therapy to relax while awaiting her transplant. Russell found out Matsui was playing at a venue 35 miles away from her home, and with further research, also found out Matsui supported the National Marrow Donor Program and the Marrow Foundation in support of their program, “Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches,” which promotes the registration of people of ethnic minorities as marrow donors in the hopes of improving the change of finding matching donors.

After coordinating with the marketing representative at the venue, Russell met Matsui during the intermission!

“My son still can’t believe I managed to get my own personal meet and greet with Keiko Matsui! I felt that Somebody was watching over me and thought I needed something good to happen,” Russell says.

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