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Transplant Patient Finds Friendship with Donor Family

Wanda Samuel and Tracy and Alexis Martinez, mother and sister of organ donor Sarina Tatum
Wanda Samuel holds a photo of her "angel"--young organ donor Sarina Tatum--as she stands with Alexis and Tracy Martinez, Tatum's sister and mother.

As the din of slot machines and midday gamblers filled the Hammond Horseshoe Casino, Wanda Samuel, 63, scanned the corridor, looking for two strangers.

She suspected they would spot her first. "You can’t miss me," she'd told Tracy and Richard Martinez when they spoke a day earlier, describing her close-cropped gray hair. "I'm bald-headed."

"I felt these people needed to know what a good thing they and their loved one had done."

Sure enough, she soon heard a male voice call out her name. It was low and gravelly, just like on the phone. Samuel turned to see a 6-foot-3 man with a dark goatee standing near the entrance to the lounge area.

She smiled and waved, wondering where his wife was. As Samuel walked over, the man poked his head into the lounge and beckoned to someone. A middle-aged woman with long brown hair emerged from the doorway, her eyes filling with tears. Samuel could feel hers welling up too as Tracy Martinez approached.

Without a word, the two women embraced and began sobbing. It was the first time they had ever met, but their lives were intimately intertwined.

Interstitial Lung Disease Program

A little more than a year ago Samuel was facing a grim prognosis. A debilitating case of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a little-understood inflammatory disease, was making it nearly impossible for her to breathe on her own. And it was worsening every day.

"I had reached my resolve for whatever was going to happen," recalled Samuel, who went on the University of Chicago Medicine's organ transplant list in July 2009. A month later, she underwent a bilateral lung transplant.

The organs that saved her life belonged to 14-year-old Sarina Tatum, the daughter of Tracy and Richard Martinez. An honors student, the girl had died tragically when an unknown suspect shot her in the head less than a mile from her home in Hammond, Indiana. Police named a person of interest, a teenage male spotted running from the scene, earlier this year, but no arrests have been made. The investigation is ongoing.

Fond of hip-hop music and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, Tatum was set to begin her freshman year, in high school, in the fall.

Wanda Samuel and Tracy Martinez

As her parents continued to grieve their daughter’s horrific death, they found an unanticipated solace: Samuel. This past September, the Chicago native reached out to thank them for her second chance at life.

“I told myself I’d wait a year, to give the family a chance to grieve and come to terms with what had happened,” she said. “I had recovered to the point where I felt these people needed to know what a good thing they and their loved one had done.”

When the time came, Samuel wanted to do more than send a thank-you note. In her initial letter, she explained that her relatives were planning an October reunion in Orlando, Florida to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her successful transplant. Would the Martinez family consider joining them, all expenses paid?

Wanda Samuel, lung transplant recipient

“I was kind of shocked,” Tracy Martinez recalled. She knew her daughter’s organs had gone to multiple recipients around the country--a Missouri girl received her heart and a 31-year old Midwest man received her pancreas--but Samuel was the first to reach out to them.

While recipient and organ donor information is kept strictly confidential, parties are able to communicate through the transplant center and organ procurement organizations like Gift of Hope, here in Illinois. Jamie V. Bucio, CPTC, CCEMT-P, an organ procurement coordinator at the University of Chicago Medicine, helped with the initial correspondence. While it’s not uncommon for donor and recipient families to get in touch by writing letters or even by phone following a transplant, she said, face-to-face meetings, if they happen at all, sometimes take years.

“I know that but for some very gracious people, the probability of me even being here would be zero.”

Not for Samuel. “She has been ready from Day One,” Bucio said. “I got the fax from Wanda saying, ‘You know, I want to invite them to Florida.’ Within a matter of two days, and the assistance of the donor’s organ procurement organization, they had planned it and everyone was going.”

Samuel and the Martinez family met for the first time at the casino a few days before the trip. Crying in each other’s arms, they connected immediately and have since grown close.

Samuel considers Sarina her angel. “It’s like Sarina stood at the foot of my bed, pointed at me and said, ‘That one. We have to keep that one.’”

Though too young to even have a driver’s license, the girl had already decided to be an organ donor. “We talked about it,” said Tracy Martinez, who is a donor herself. “I just didn’t know it would happen so soon.”

These days, Samuel shows few signs of the illness that nearly ended her life. She spent the fall traveling to Colorado, Nevada, and Canada with family. Next year, she plans to take a motorcycle trip with her twin sister and her 36-year-old daughter.

Wanda Samuel, lung transplant recipient

“I know that but for some very gracious people, the probability of me even being here would be zero,” said Samuel, who first came to the University of Chicago in February 2009 with reoccurring shortness of breath.

Her diagnosis, IPF--leads to scarring of lung tissue, causes stiffness of the lungs and decreases respiratory function--has few if any, treatment options. Research into the condition is ongoing, but its causes remain largely unknown.

By March, Samuel couldn’t walk from her living room to her bathroom without a 20-minute rest. She was soon visiting the University of Chicago medical campus three times a week to receive 25 liters of oxygen therapy. (A typical patient with severe pulmonary issues requires four to six liters.)

With her condition quickly deteriorating, Samuel was placed on the University of Chicago Medicine's lung transplant list, where patients are prioritized based on the severity of their illness. Some can wait for years for a transplant.

A month later, Edward Garrity, MD, associate director of transplantation services and professor of medicine, came running toward her as she was being discharged from her latest round of oxygen.

“You can’t go,” he said. “We have to prepare you.” They had found an organ match and that night Samuel underwent transplant surgery. She came home a week later, breathing on her own for the first time in months.

Wanda Samuel and Tracy Martinez walking hand in hand

The Florida reunion gave her a chance to express her thanks to the Martinez family. “I was so happy that they accepted the invitation,” Samuel said. “My whole family wanted to meet them. The only thing that made sense, to do was to bring them to the party.”

More than 60 relatives showed up in Orlando. Tracy and Richard Martinez came with their 8-year-old daughter, Alexis.

“My brother and nephew were just so overwhelmed with joy and so thankful, that every now and then they would just walk up and hug the Martinezes,” Samuel said.

During the weekend event, Samuel’s three grown daughters threw a party to celebrate their mother’s new life. They also honored those who gave her that chance.

Fighting back tears, the daughters presented Tracy, Richard, and Alexis each with a set of engraved silver dog tags. The pieces were a remembrance of the tags Sarina was wearing when she died. The inscription: “From your angel to my heart. Thanks, Wanda.”

For the Martinez family, the relationship with Samuel has been an unexpected light amid tragedy. “They’re beautiful people, the whole family,” Richard Martinez said. “They really showed us a good time in Orlando. A lot of love, a lot of hugs.”

“We’re like family now,” agreed Tracy Martinez. “We talk every day.”

January 2011

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