The Waiting Game: 9 Organ Transplant Patients Fight to Survive

Organ Transplants: Gift of Life
ABCNEWS.com

For many patients in need of vital organ transplants, life is a waiting game.

For some, getting a new, healthy organ can happen overnight. But for most, the wait is much longer. Sometimes it can take years.

Over 100,000 people in the United States need organ transplants and 18 people die each day waiting for one, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To see the organ transplant process in real-time, "Nightline" spent time with patients on the transplant waiting list at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., one of the leading transplant centers in the world.

These are their stories:

Learn more about Facebook's new "Share Life" organ donation campaign HERE.

Want to be an organ donor? Details on how to register HERE.

Waiting for a Heart and Liver

VIDEO: Jessica Danielson, 30, has been waiting for a heart transplant for seven years.
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Jessica Danielson, 30

At age 19, Jessica Danielson was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, which led to congestive heart failure.

Doctors told her that she would either have a heart attack or die from the disease within three years. Now 10 years later, Danielson is waiting at the Mayo Clinic for her double transplant.

Attached to her IV at all times, Danielson nicknamed it "Wilson." "He's keeping me going," she said. "He's pumping medications directly into my heart."

Before arriving at Mayo Clinic in December, Danielson was working full-time at her local TV station in Duluth, Minn., where she hopes to return after she gets her transplants.

"I don't think death is in the cards for me," she said. "I have way too much to do and I'm doing everything I can to stay strong."

Click on the video player to watch Jessica's story.

Waiting for a Liver and Kidney

VIDEO: Dick Leffler, 65, of Edina, Minn., is waiting for a liver and kidney transplant.
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Richard Loeffler, 65

Richard Loeffler of Edina, Minn., was diagnosed with liver disease in 1984, and last year, he was told he would need a liver transplant.

Loeffler and his wife, Madonna, are now living in Rochester, Minn., until he gets his surgery. Loeffler, who has five grown children and seven grandchildren, said: "The waiting is the most difficult part."

"Just last week the people upstairs from us got a liver, then there was another person down the hall who also got a liver," he said. "When will it be my turn?"

Click on the video player to watch Richard's story.

Waiting for a Heart

VIDEO: Charles Long, 65, has been waiting for a new heart since December 2010.
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Charles Long, 65

Charles Long has a condition called cardiac amyloidosis and has been on the waiting list for a heart transplant since December 2010.

When his health worsened three months ago, Long was admitted to the hospital where he will stay until he gets a new heart.

A former contract administrator at 3M from Minneapolis, Long is looking forward to getting his health back and enjoying retirement. While he waits in the hospital he tries to keep busy on his computer and his sister visits often.

Reflecting on his future donor, Long said, "You know what has to happen for you to get [a transplant] so it's not like I am sitting around praying someone dies so I can get a heart."

Click on the video player to watch Charles's story.

Waiting for a Kidney and Liver

VIDEO: Joey Gill, 21, has put off college to wait for a kidney and liver transplant.
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Joey Gill, 21

Joey Gill of Cincinnati has been on the waiting list for kidney and liver transplant for a year and a half.

Gill has a rare, genetic recessive disorder called Primary Hyperoxaluria Type I (commonly referred to as PH1). It is caused by a metabolic defect in the liver which results in overproduction of a waste product called oxalate. Over time, large amounts of oxalate will cause stone material to form in the kidneys, eventually causing them to fail. Once the kidneys fail, oxalate starts to attack other organs including the heart, bone, muscle, tissue and eyes, eventually leading to death.

The only "cure" is a liver and kidney transplant.

Gill and his mother Nancy Gill are now living in a rented house in Rochester, Minn., until he gets his transplants.

The 21-year-old gets dialysis at the Mayo Clinic five days a week -- a 5-hour per day process. Gill has had to put his life and plans for college on hold because of this disease. To distract himself from his illness he plays video games and watches movies.

"I miss my life, you know, I could be doing a lot of things with my life," he said. "It's been really rough. I've gone through a lot of severe, unimaginable pain."

His mother said the hardest part is waiting. "Every time the phone rings my heart skips five beats because we don't know if that's the call. We want it to happen but it's scary too. It's a big deal, a big operation," Nancy Gill said.

Click on the video player to watch Joey's story.

Waiting for a Liver

PHOTO: Dr. Maria Garza, 57, is waiting on a liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rodchester, Minn.
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Dr. Maria Garza, 57

It was last Thanksgiving when Maria Garza noticed something was wrong. She had a rash, then an ultrasound and visits to the radiologist determined she had liver disease.

A practicing physician herself in Brownsville, Texas, Garza, a Mexico native, is now the patient, staying full-time in Rochester, Minn., in a rented apartment until she gets her liver transplant.

Waiting for a Lung

VIDEO: Penny Pearson, 58, from Hadley, Minn is waiting for a lung transplant.
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Penny Pearson, 58

Penny Pearson was diagnosed in December with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and is now in need of a lung transplant.

"It's hard to have enough patience. Nobody realizes how hard it is to breathe," Pearson said.

She and her husband Dean own a horse farm in Hadley, Minn., and have two children. She said she wants to be able to watch her grandchildren ride horses, see her friends at home and have fun again.

Click on the video player to watch Penny's story.

Waiting on a Liver

VIDEO: Barb Carpenter said she can't travel and waits for the call about a new liver.
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Barbara Carpenter, 62

Barbara Carpenter is a retired elementary school teacher from Hager City, Wis., who has been waiting for a liver transplant for eight years.

She has already been called twice for surgery but both times the donor organs were deemed to be unusable.

"The wait gets old because you are always on pins and needles," she said.

Her bags are always packed in the trunk of her car, ready to go for transplant day, whenever it comes. Carpenter and her husband cannot travel more than two hours from home in case the call comes in.

"I am anxious, I'm anxious to go," she said. "It's like being on a roller coaster. One day you're good, one day you're bad. One day you feel like getting out of bed; the next day there's no way you can get out of bed."

Click on the video player to watch Barbara's story.

Waiting on a Liver No More

VIDEO: After 15 years of living with liver disease, Gordon Karels, 62, gets a new liver
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Gordon Karels, 60

It was 8 p.m. in Rochester, Minn. when Gordon Karels got the phone call -- the one every organ transplant patient hopes for.

"There's a liver," his surgeon told him over the phone.

Two hours later the Mayo Clinic called back with an update. It was a go.

Click on the video player to watch Gordon's story.

As Karels rushed to the hospital for pre-surgery preparation, Mayo Clinic's transplant team was already in a plane, on their way to an undisclosed location where the organ donor was about to give Karels and his family a new lease on life.

For 15 years, Karels, a finance professor at the University of Nebraska, was able to manage his liver disease. He and his wife, Earla, made routine trips to the Mayo Clinic from their home in Lincoln, Neb., but then, this past January, his condition worsened.

"He started getting much sicker, fever, losing weight," Earla Karels said. "He looked extremely different in just 2 months time," she recalled. "The yellow jaundice, the weight loss."

The family and doctors considered the possibility of living donors. His younger sister, Jan, was hoping she would be able to be the donor but her liver was not the right match.

Karels was officially put on the transplant list last month. Just two days later -- an unusually short waiting period -- he got the call.

After hours in the waiting room, Dr. Julie Heimbach emerged from the operating room to tell his family, "things went well."

"It was perfect," Heimbach said. "This liver is already working, I can tell, its making bile, doing the job we expect."

"His old liver was a pretty terrible-looking liver so we got that out," she added.

That evening, Karels was already sitting up in a chair. By the next day he was up walking around, already feeling better, albeit with some stomach pain.

"This is about as good as it gets for a transplant situation and I feel really lucky it worked out," he said. "I'm certainly most appreciative to the family, when one life ends to extend another. That's probably the best gift you can give anyone."

Earla Karels could not stop smiling as she looked at her husband the day after surgery.

"We benefited from someone who made a really generous decision," she said. "How do you thank someone for such a big gift. I hope we get the opportunity."

Waiting on a Second Heart No More

VIDEO: Months after Colter Meinart's first transplanted heart failed, he got another.
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Colter Meinert, 9

Colter Meinert is like any other second grader. He works out his math problems on his fingers, races to speed stack cups, obsesses over all things Star Wars, and wants to bolt from school the moment the bell rings.

But hiding underneath his hoodie is a satchel that holds a pump that gives Colter medicine 24 hours a day -- medicine that keeps his heart from failing.

At just 9 years old, Colter was waiting for a heart transplant. In fact, he was waiting for his second heart transplant.

Click on the video player to watch Colter's story.

Within a day of being born, doctors discovered Colter had hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Essentially, the little boy was missing the left side of his heart.

"I had heard of transplants," said Colter's father Jeff Meinart. "But I never thought one of my kids would need one."

At 6 weeks old, Colter received his first heart transplant, and has lived pretty much the life of a normal boy for the last nine years.

"He runs, he plays," Jeff Meinart said. "I asked his cardiologist, 'Should we be letting him run or should we be kind of holding him back' and the doctor just said 'let him do what he wants.'"

However, last summer, Colter's transplanted heart started to fail.

"His heart basically just wore out," Jeff Meinart said. "Seven years is the time they start looking to see if they need to do another transplant because that's about the life expectancy of them. They don't know why some people 20 years have had the same one and some people it just lasts a certain amount of time."

Colter's failing heart and the medication he takes has led to kidney failure as well so doctors thought he also needed a kidney transplant.

After nine months of waiting, the Meinert family finally got the call they were waiting for. Colter was wheeled into surgery and got his second heart.

"Not that long ago he had asked me, 'where is this heart going to come from and my kidney? How do they get it'" Colter's mother Patty said. "And I explained that ... when another child loses his life, that that's where they are going to get the heart and the kidney from. And I think he understands that."

Within days after the surgery, Colter was up and walking around the hospital unit where he was recovering, once again obsessing about all things Star Wars. The kidneys from the donor went to another patient, but Colter's kidneys continue to work, so his family is now waiting to see if he will need the kidney transplant after all. 

Learn more about Facebook's new "Share Life" organ donation campaign HERE.

Want to be an organ donor? Details on how to register HERE.

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