Category Archives: Stories

Lung Recipient Runs Up A Skyscraper

“I was sick all my life,” says Steve Ferkau, manager of trading floor operations at the Chicago Stock Exchange. “As a child I was always coughing and getting serious infections. I had bronchitis, allergies and bouts of pneumonia. I was very thin, and as far back as I can remember I was always the smallest in the class. At 16, when I got my driver’s license, I weighed 75 pounds.”

            On his 13th birthday, his problems were diagnosed as cystic fibrosis, the genetic disease that produces thick sticky mucus that clogs the lungs. Thirty thousand Americans suffer from it.

            The treatment was a form of torture for everyone involved.  Every day someone had to pound on his chest so he could cough up the gooey mess to clear his lungs. “Mom had no rhythm, so at 7 o’clock, nearly every morning for six years, Dad cupped his hands and thumped my chest until he left for work. At 10 o’clock at night he did another half hour.”

In time he deteriorated so much that he was put on the transplant waiting list. For three years, he was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Just to get up off the sofa, where he spent a lot of time, and walk to the bathroom left him crouched over the sink struggling to catch his breath.

Then one day, out of the blue, when his lungs were so clogged no one knew how he could pull air into them, a pair of lungs were offered to him. “As with most successful lung transplants he was pink immediately,” his nurse recalls. Three weeks after the operation, he walked a mile in 20 minutes, something that before the transplant could have taken hours. In ten weeks he was back at work.

            The one thing that clouds the result for him was that the lungs came from

a beautiful, intelligent and athletic 17-year old from Iowa, Kari Westberg, who woke up one day with a headache and died of a brain hemorrhage later that day.

Steve struggles to find some ground where he can tell Kari’s parents how happy he is without reminding them of what they’ve lost. But what he wrote to them must come as near to that hallowed ground as any poet could find: “You’ve taught me there is pure goodness in the world.”

Kari’s mother, Lisa, responded in her own unaffected way in talking about Steve and Kari’s heart recipient. “We never want them to feel they owe us,” she says. “Their happiness is gratification enough.”

This was not enough for him, however. Three years after the transplant in an event staged by the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago, and dedicated to Kari, he raced up 94 floors of the Hancock Center – 1,632 steps — in 33 minutes.

And he has done the same thing in her honor every year since then, a total of 14 times.

From “The Gift that Heals,” by Reg Green, published by AuthorHouse, 2007, (www.authorhouse.com).

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Blind for 48 Years, He Can See Again

On the day after Christmas 1944, in a corner of what became one of the most fiercely fought battles of World War II, a German mine blew up in Sergeant Harold Urick’s face. It left him totally blind and he stayed that way for 48 years.

            Harold’s unit, the 303rd Engineers, had just crossed the redoubtable German defensive barrier, the Siegfried Line, when they were ordered to dig up and defuse mines.

            He remembers every detail. “It was a bitterly cold day and the ground was frozen hard. There was a man on each side of me as we moved forward. I saw the mine – it was one of the small ones they used, just about a quarter pound —  and began digging it up very carefully with my bayonet. Suddenly I slipped on the icy ground.  There was an explosion and everything went dark. I put my hands on my face. ‘My God, I thought, what am I going to do now?’

            “Most of all in those early days, I worried about Jean. I was 21 and we’d been married just over a year. I thought of it over and over. Instead of the life we’d dreamed of when the war was over, I was going to be a burden to her all her life.”

            He was flown to a military hospital in Valley Forge and then back home to Cleveland. One eye was so badly damaged that it to be taken out and a prosthetic one put in its place. With the other he could see just a patch of light.

            He spent two years in a therapy school and then, with the dogged courage that has defined his life, started a physical therapy business of his own. “But people weren’t as affluent then and it didn’t take,” he says. He worked for several years at the Cleveland Clinic and then for another 15 at a snack bar managed by the Cleveland Sight Center.

            In the meantime, he and Jean had five children and seven grandchildren, none of whom he had ever seen. The family was central to his life. He went to almost every high school and college football game his son, Jeff, played in. “My wife would tell me what was going on. I just wanted to be there.”

            But his sight didn’t improve. “I went to three or four ophthalmologists over the years but all of them said they couldn’t do anything for me. Then one day in 1992 I was listening to a television program and I heard a doctor talking about transplanting corneas. I didn’t know what to think but I went back to the eye doctors. They weren’t encouraging until one of them said, ‘I know a doctor who does these. I think you should go to him.’

            “That’s how I met Dr. Philip Shands at Kaiser Permanente. ‘Yes,’ he told me, ‘I do these. Do you want to try?’ ‘You bet,’ I said. ‘What do I have to lose?’”

            Shands had then been in practice for only a year or two and was unsure himself about how much he could help. “The prosthetic eye we could do nothing about, of course. But when I examined the other one, I could see a small bit of the iris which, when we shone a light on it, constricted a little. Then, using ultrasound and other tests, it appeared as though the retina and other structures inside the eye were intact.”

             With this encouragement, Harold was put on the waiting list and told it would probably take three or four months before they had a cornea for him. “You might think I’d be on pins and needles all that time but I wasn’t. Most of the time I didn’t think about it, probably because he exuded so much confidence,” he recalls.

            Just before Thanksgiving, he was called in and, with great care, Shands removed the badly damaged cornea and other scarred tissue, implanted an artificial lens to focus the light and sewed in the donated cornea. In about an hour it was all over, Harold remembers. “‘Are you done?’ I asked him. ‘Yep,’ he said ‘but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning when we remove the bandages.’

            “The next day, when he began to take them off, I was lying face down on the bed and the first thing I saw were his shoes – the first things I’d seen in 48 years – then his pants. I looked up and saw he was wearing glasses. It was still a bit fuzzy, but they’d warned me it would take a while.

            “Then I looked down the bed and there was Jean, looking as pretty as she did when I first met her. Then I looked at Yvonne, my oldest daughter. It was the first time I’d ever seen her face. And she was beautiful, too.”

            He had some shocks too, such as how big airplanes had become and how fast cars went. In a few months his sight had improved so that he could pass the driver’s test and read just about anything he wanted. “Since then we’ve only had to fine-tune the prescriptions for his glasses, just like any normal aging person,” Shands says. “With them on he has 20/25 vision. Like all corneal recipients, he takes small amounts of immune-suppressants but has never had a period of rejection.”

            The other patients Shands treats have much less dramatic stories. “This was a once-in-a-career case,” he says. “But vision is the faculty people fear losing most and, with success rates of over 90 percent for those who are legally blind, cornea transplants reopen a world they thought they had lost forever.”

            All his life Harold has treasured the little things. Now it’s being able to walk through a restaurant to find a table or waving at friends across the street. He can still see with only one eye but goes to baseball games regularly and doesn’t need a running commentary. And at 86, he still bowls and plays golf.

            “But best of all is being able to see the whole family,” he says. “That was the hardest thing all those years. Now I have everything I want.”

 From “The Gift that Heals,” by Reg Green, published by AuthorHouse, 2007, (www.authorhouse.com).

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Child Killed at Random Gives Sight to Others

Roxanna Green is the mother of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl who was killed when a gunman fired into the crowd at an outdoor meeting for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011. She remembers, as in a nightmare, her daughter covered with a sheet and she, beside her, kissing her face and stroking her feet, willing her to live.

But, even as she and her husband, John, grappled with the enormity of their loss, they found the strength to donate her corneas, restoring the sight of two people, for whom there was no other cure. The child, born on one day of indiscriminate killing, September 11, 2001 – ‘9/11’ – and dying on another, gave the nation a reason to believe that, even in the most heart-wrenching circumstances, selflessness can overcome senselessness.

Christina Taylor Green with Roxanna

Shot at random: Christina-Taylor Green with her mother, Roxanna.

(Courtesy: the Green family)

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The Seven-Year Old Policeman

Six-year old Noah Michael Davis of Shawnee, Kansas. wanted to be a policeman so he could make sure “everyone was safe.” He didn’t make it. Instead, he drowned in the family swimming pool and was declared brain dead. Although he couldn’t help everyone, his family did donate his kidneys, giving two very sick people their lives back. On what would have been his seventh birthday, he was sworn in as an honorary police officer.

noah - the 7-year-old policeman

Noah Davis, Honorary Police Officer

(Courtesy: the Davis family)

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