National Donate Life Month is celebrated in April to raise awareness about the more than 121,000 men, women and children in the U.S. who are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant. Registering as an organ and tissue donor is a heroic and selfless decision. It’s a choice that changes and saves lives, impacting not only the individual in need of a transplant, but their families and the community as a whole.
Over 25 years ago, Gabrielle Archangelo (Wilmington, DE), Joelle Atkinson (Franklinville, NJ) and Gabrielle Steiger (Philadelphia, PA) were fortunate to receive a second chance at life – life-saving organ transplants. Today, all three women are in their late 20s and living life to the fullest. Throughout the years, these women have become good friends and have shared many of the same life experiences. Although they have all gone on to create active and full lives, their one common thread – transplantation – still bonds them together.
Gabrielle Archangelo received a liver transplant at just 13 months old. When she was born, she weighed only 4 pounds 15 ounces, and was severely jaundiced. After three months of not gaining weight and being lethargic, the pediatrician diagnosed Gabrielle with biliary atresia, a rare disease of the liver and bile ducts that occurs in infants and causes cirrhosis. Although she had a reparative surgery, it was only a temporary fix. She would need a liver transplant.
She was added to the organ transplant waitlist at seven months old, and would wait six months until she received the gift of life. During her wait, she had excessive skin irritation, her eyes were yellowish-green, her stomach was distended and her parents had to feed her through a tube. Then, they received the phone call that saved their baby’s life. Only 12 hours after her surgery, her family knew that there was hope when they saw Gabrielle’s eyes. They had completely cleared up. For the first time in over a year, her eyes were no longer yellow.
“The transplant has allowed me to live my life to the fullest.” said Gabrielle. “Over the past twenty-five years, my family and I have worked to raise awareness about donation and share my story. I have spoken at many health care events, visited transplanted children in hospitals and presented to the state legislation. My mother, Eve, is also the recipient of three life-saving transplants. Giving back is at the center of our family.” she said.
Because of the incredible care that Gabrielle received as a child, she was inspired to pursue a career in nursing. “I hope that I can make a positive impact on the people I help.” she said. “I am currently working as a registered nurse on a medical-surgical floor, and am hoping to advance my career and earn a MSN. All of this could not have been possible without my donor’s mother making the powerful choice to donate life – during the toughest time of her life.”
Joelle Atkinson was born with Polycystic Kidney Disease, a disease that leads to kidney failure. It was an emotional struggle and wait for Joelle’s parents. As her kidneys began to fail, doctors told her parents that she needed to reach 22 pounds in order to go on dialysis. After nine months of illness, she finally achieved the necessary weight, had her diseased kidneys removed and went on dialysis. Joelle’s parents were both tested to donate a life-saving kidney to her, and moved forward with the donation process to become living donors.
“I needed a kidney transplant and my parents were both a match for me. They made the decision for my dad to donate.” said Joelle. “I was lucky to be able to have an active childhood because of him. Growing up, my only restriction was that I couldn’t play contact sports because I had a large kidney on my right side. I thought that I was a normal kid and that everyone went to the doctor all the time.”
After several healthy years with her new kidney, doctors began noticing changes to her liver. Her severe liver decline was also causing issues with her transplanted kidney. She was only nine years old, her health was failing and she needed two organ transplants to survive – a kidney and a liver. She was listed for both transplants and had to wait nine months before her critical need was met. “Even as a kid, I knew I was really sick this time.” said Joelle. “I was retaining about 20 pounds of excess fluid and couldn’t even tie my shoes. I couldn’t go to school. It was very scary. I’m grateful that my parents were able to be such a huge support for me.”
After receiving a third chance at life in 1999, Joelle got her life back and was able to focus on being a child again. Post-transplant, she became a swimmer, continued dance lessons and took up running. She applied her swimming and running skills at the Donate Life Transplant Games of America, where she competed with other transplant recipients and brought home many medals. She also formed friendships with other recipients, Gabrielle Archangelo and Gabrielle Steiger, at the Games. From June 10-15, Joelle will go head-to-head once again with athletes from across the country and compete in the Transplant Games.
“I have amazing friends from the transplant community.” she said. “I shared a hospital room with Gabrielle (Archangelo), and today we are still best friends. I’ve always been grateful for all that I’ve been given, even when I was younger. It’s just crazy that it’s been 25 years. I feel very lucky.”
Today, Joelle is giving back by promoting organ and tissue donation and helping others. She is healthy and happy post-transplant, and has earned a B.A. and M.A. in occupational therapy. She is free from illness and makes the most of her gifts by enjoying every day and keeping an upbeat, positive frame of mind.
In 1988, Gabrielle Steiger was just one year old when her parents took her to her first year check-up. When doctors said that Gabrielle was suffering from an enlarged liver, her parents were shocked because she appeared to be thriving. After determining that Gabrielle had liver disease, her parents learned that she would need a liver transplant to survive.
Fortunately, Gabrielle only had to wait a few months before she received the gift of life. The youngest sibling of four, Gabrielle was able to live a normal life post-transplant. “My sister remembers us having a ‘Love Your Liver’ coloring book, which is funny.” said Gabrielle. “I was not in a bubble. I wasn’t treated differently because of my transplant. My family and I became very active in the transplant community – speaking about our experiences often and participating in the Transplant Games.”
Gabrielle has been to the Transplant Games eight times since receiving a liver transplant, and has also participated in the World Transplant Games, bringing home medals and visiting France, Canada, Thailand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Sweden.
“I’ve always loved to travel and the World Games was a great excuse to see different countries while supporting donation. All of my experiences with transplantation have opened doors for me that I never dreamed were imaginable.” she said.
Gabrielle graduated from Penn State University with a degree in International Relations, and later went on to teach English in Hungary and Slovakia. She also lived in Israel for a year to volunteer. After returning to the U.S., she completed a Master’s in Public Policy and began her job as a Government Contractor in Washington, DC, which she still holds today.
“It’s unbelievable to me that it has been more than 25 years since my liver transplant. It really is a second chance at life. I think about what the donor family must have gone through. My life really never had any limitations because of their decision to say ‘yes’ to donation.” she said. Gabrielle is getting ready to begin the next exciting chapter of her life. She is getting married in January, 2017.
Organ and tissue donors can save and benefit the lives of up to 50 people. An organ donor can give a second chance at life to up to eight people. Through tissue donation, a donor can enhance the lives of countless others. Donors can also donate their corneas, which can give the gift of sight to two recipients.
To register as an organ and tissue donor, visit www.donors1.org. It only takes 30 seconds to register today! Don’t wait – sign up today and join the movement to save lives!