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Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Recipient Forms Close Bond with Donor's Mother
At six years old, Philadelphia resident, Arlinda Griffin, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. She was put on insulin and was restricted from all the sweets that children often love – candy, cookies and sugar of any type. By the time she reached her late teens, she began suffering from seizures that doctors said were related to her diabetes.
Arlinda, a deeply faithful and positive woman, continued to live her life with hope in spite of her health challenges. She earned a cosmetology license at 18, began a career as a hairdresser and gave birth to her son, Shawn, when she was 21.
Years later, she began having changes with her vision. She would wake up and rub her eyes because everything was fuzzy and she couldn’t see. She went to an ophthalmologist and was told that she had a detached retina in her right eye. After a surgery and many attempts to save her vision, today Arlinda has no sight in her right eye and 5% vision in her left eye. Regardless of how well she was taking care of herself, her diabetes was resistant and she was unable to get it under control.
At 33 years old, she faced another obstacle – she was in the early stages of congestive heart failure. After she passed out due to her heart issues, her son called 911 and she was raced to the hospital. The diagnosis was alarming – in addition to her heart, Arlinda’s kidney function was diminishing and she was told that she would need a kidney transplant to survive.
She was scared and unwilling to accept the reality that she needed a kidney transplant, until one night when her mind was changed forever. “I was in bed and I heard someone call my name. I felt that it was God and he was reassuring me that I’d be okay. I know it may sound crazy, but it gave me so much comfort. It made me feel hopeful and that everything was going to be okay.” she said.
At the same time, Arlinda’s health continued to diminish. Fluid was overtaking her body and she could barely walk or breathe. Her only hope was a life-saving kidney transplant, but as she waited, dialysis kept her kidneys functioning. She went to dialysis three hours a day, most days of the week. She was added to the organ transplant waitlist for both a kidney and a pancreas to help eradicate the diabetes that had taken her eyesight and her health.
“My last day of dialysis – before I got the call that there was a matching kidney and pancreas for me – I had a thought that this may be the day. I thought ‘what if this is my last treatment?’ I knew it was a possibility and it felt amazing.” said Arlinda. And she was right. “My transplant surgery went well and doctors told me that there was no sign of diabetes in my blood. I spent 12 days in the hospital and was able to sit up and eat just days after my transplant. I was so thankful. I never thought I could feel that great. I felt bubbly and energetic. My whole life I felt one way, and now I was different. God was watching over me.”
After a year of corresponding with her donor’s mother, Mary Smith, the two women were able to meet. “I was so anxious and grateful to talk with her and her husband. I wanted them to know how grateful I was. They gave me a second chance at life. What more could I ask for?” Arlinda said.
It’s been five years since Arlinda and Mary connected. Eric Smith, Arlinda’s generous donor and Mary’s son, was a graduate of Temple University's Fox School of Business and was working at Lockheed Martin when he died. "He told me eight weeks before he died that he felt he was going to do great things," Mary recalled. In June, 2011, at the corner of Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, he fell asleep at the wheel, ran a red light and was hit broadside by another driver.
"We went from being on cloud nine to the deepest, darkest pit you could ever imagine," his mother said, remembering the knock on the door from police and the trip downtown with Eric's father and younger sister. With Eric brain dead and on life support, the family agreed without hesitation that he should be a donor. He had signed up as an organ donor when he got his license at 16, so they knew what his wishes were.
"Through organ donation and getting to know Arlinda and other people, I truly believe Eric has gone places and he is doing great things on this earth,” Mary said. “And knowing what a great person Arlinda is has really helped me deal with my grief.”
“We have such a phenomenal relationship.” said Arlinda. “I thank God for her every day. We talk regularly and it’s therapeutic for me. Mary and her husband are both so easy to talk to. We have a wonderful connection, and I believe that this was all in God’s plan.”
Today, Arlinda is healthy and happy. She’s had no complications in five years, and has shown no signs of rejection. “I'm pretty much in great health now and feel fantastic," she said.
In 2017, Arlinda fulfilled a life-long dream of singing the National Anthem at a Philadelphia Phillies game. Mary joined Arlinda on the field and the two shared this special moment together. Arlinda will sing the anthem again at the 23rd Annual Donor Dash on Sundy, April 15, 2018.
For more on Arlinda and Mary, click here.
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