Stories written and published by Stevie Lowery, Editor of Lebanon Enterprise
She’s got heart
Have you ever met a person who has gone through so much during his or her life that you can’t comprehend how they’re still standing, let alone smiling?
Well, Lori Caldwell is one of those people.
Nearly 19 years ago, she had a heart transplant.
She had been diagnosed with post-partum cardiomyopathy after having her daughter, Cameron, on July 2, 1996. The left side of her heart no longer functioned, and doctors didn’t know what caused it.
“I was always worried about having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby,” Caldwell said. “Never in a million years did I think something might be wrong with me.”
So, instead of getting to go home with her newborn baby girl, Lori was transferred to Norton Hospital in Louisville where doctors explained that about a third of patients with her condition improved, another third could be maintained on medication and another third… “Well, they didn’t exactly say,” Lori said.
For the first 17 months of her baby girl’s life, Lori was in and out of hospitals constantly. Eventually, she was put on the heart transplant list at the young age of 24.
“How do I go from having a baby to needing a heart transplant?” Lori remembers thinking.
On Valentine’s Day in 1997, Lori experienced the first of three strokes, which heavily affected the use of the left side of her body.
“But, I’m right handed, so that’s the silver lining,” she said.
Lori waited for 17 months before receiving her life-saving new heart.
On Nov. 19, 1997, she underwent a heart transplant.
“That day was a blur,” Lori said. “But, I wasn’t scared. At that point, I was ready. I had been away from my baby for so long. She was almost a toddler and I had missed out on all that. The hardest part was not having that mother/daughter bond when she was a baby.”
Lori came home from the hospital for good in February of 1998.
Since then, she’s had several setbacks, including having to get a pacemaker in 2007.
Today, Lori, 44, is facing another setback. In January, she found out that she’s going to have to get a kidney transplant. The anti-rejection medications she’s had to take since the heart transplant, coupled with having diabetes, have been hard on her kidneys.
“I’ve known since day one that it could possibly happen,” she said, “I kind of expected it, but still…”
Lori will undergo minor surgery in May to prepare for kidney dialysis, and she’s currently in search for a new kidney. She’s not on the transplant list yet, but hopes to be by June. Until then, she’s actively searching for a match. For the record, Lori’s blood type is A positive, and anyone interested in seeing if he or she is a possible match can contact the UK Transplant Center in Lexington.
“My life is a book,” Lori said, with a laugh.
“They should make a movie,” her 19-year-old daughter, Cameron, chimed in.
Somehow, through all of the setbacks and health problems, Lori has kept an amazing sense of humor.
“If I didn’t laugh, I’d probably cry,” she said. “I make myself keep going. If I was to ever sit down and feel sorry for myself that would be the end of it. So I make myself go.”
Lori also has an amazing support system in her family, especially her daughter Cameron, and her husband of nearly 23 years, Greg. Cameron has grown up learning how to care for her mom and is currently in nursing school.
“It’s kind of nice to have a patient at home to practice on,” Cameron said, laughing.
But, in all seriousness, Cameron is grateful to have such a strong mother who refuses to give up.
“She keeps making it through it,” Cameron said.
Cameron is also thankful that someone made the selfless decision to be an organ donor, which saved her mother’s life.
“If someone hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have gotten to have her around this long,” Cameron said. “I wouldn’t have had a mom.”
Perfect strangers, perfect match
Anyone that knows Lori Caldwell would likely agree that she’s been through hell and back.
Nearly 20 years ago, she had a heart transplant.
She had been diagnosed with post-partum cardiomyopathy after having her daughter, Cameron, on July 2, 1996. The left side of her heart no longer functioned, and doctors didn’t know what caused it. But, thanks to the selfless gift of organ donation, Caldwell, 45, was given a second chance at life.
Caldwell would face another challenge last year when her kidneys started to fail. The anti-rejection medications she’s taken since the heart transplant, coupled with having diabetes, were really hard on her kidneys. She was searching for a possible living donor when she was featured in The Lebanon Enterprise in April of last year, prior to going on kidney dialysis.
Benita Clark, who lives just a few miles from Caldwell in Calvary, read that story, but the two women had never met.
That would soon change in a big way.
Clark, 59, had already been researching living kidney donation. A friend’s mother was on the verge of having to go on kidney dialysis, and she was interested in possibly donating a kidney to her. Clark had no idea that living kidney donation was possible, and after learning more about it from the Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center, she decided it was something she wanted to do. Her friend’s mother wasn’t ready to undergo a kidney transplant. However, Clark decided she still wanted to help someone from her own community, if possible. She remembered reading about Caldwell in the Enterprise, and she informed transplant officials about Caldwell’s need for a kidney.
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Clark said. “We’re supposed to help each other. We don’t, but we’re supposed to.”
Clark, who is an O positive blood type, the universal blood type, began undergoing a variety of tests. Results from every test were really good, and the possibility of her being a match for Caldwell was becoming more and more real.
“So, I thought, well, if this is going to be a team effort, Lori probably needs to know about it,” Clark said.
So, one Sunday morning, Clark looked up Caldwell’s phone number in the phone book and called her. She introduced herself, and told Caldwell there was something she wanted to talk to her about. It had something to do with her needing a kidney. Clark asked Caldwell if she could come talk to her in person, which she did.
“I just sat down and told her my story,” Clark said. “I told her I just felt really good about it. I didn’t know why, but I felt good about it.”
Caldwell, who was already undergoing dialysis for four hours a day, three days a week, was cautiously optimistic. One potential match had already fallen through, so she didn’t want to get too excited. Both women decided not to tell anyone until they knew for sure they were a perfect match.
They both underwent more rounds of testing.
“They tested me from head to toe,” Clark said. “No stone was left unturned.”
As things progressed, they were still matching.
The day before their surgery was scheduled to take place, they underwent one final round of testing. Doctors confirmed that Clark was a perfect match for Caldwell, and the surgery would take place the next morning on March 14.
It was at that point it finally felt real for Clark. But, Caldwell said she was still too nervous that something might go wrong to celebrate. Both women were anxious, but excited.
“I really felt positive about it this whole time that this was going to work out,” Clark said. “I was pumped for it, but on the flip side, I was scared. The night before, I was tore all to pieces.”
Clark said she doesn’t remember much about the morning of the surgery, which took place at approximately 6 a.m. on March 14. The surgery took four hours. Surgeons removed Clark’s left kidney, and took it across the hall to Caldwell. Surgeons told Clark that her kidney was very active and it immediately started functioning for Caldwell.
Clark’s first memory after surgery was waking up in pain, which continued in varying degrees for several days. When she was released from the hospital on Friday, March 17, she was still experiencing quite a bit of pain, but she said she would still do it all over again.
“I see what it’s done for Lori. I see the hope it’s given her and her family. She has another chance,” Clark said. “All my years, I’ve been fortunate and blessed with good health. Lori hasn’t. So, why not share some of my health that I’ve had with someone else that doesn’t have it. I feel strong about that. I wanted to share some of my health.”
Clark has already returned to Fitness One gym in Lebanon, and continues to get stronger every day. She said her workouts at the gym – and her gym buddies – are what gave her the strength to undergo such a major surgery.
“I don’t know if I could have done it had I not previously taken care of myself, and I contribute that to my training at Fitness One,” Clark said. “I’ve lost some of my strength. But, I’m back in the gym and I’m going to keep going.”
Clark said, aside from having a scar from surgery, she would never know that she only has one kidney now.
“Nothing seems different,” she said. “It’s amazing. Look at what we can do for each other.”
Caldwell hasn’t bounced back as quickly from surgery, but that’s because she experienced yet another unexpected setback. She broke her leg while in the hospital recovering from surgery, and spent four weeks there until she was moved recently to Signature Healthcare at Cherokee Park. Aside from her broken leg, Caldwell said she feels great. Caldwell said she’s beyond grateful for the gift that Clark has given her.
“It humbles me. I still can’t believe that she would do that for me,” Caldwell said. “I’ve got me a lifelong friend now. We’ve just adopted her into my family.”
Caldwell said Clark’s kidney has been working wonderfully since the surgery. In fact, it’s been working overtime.
“I’m peeing myself to death,” Caldwell said, laughing.
Caldwell looks forward to getting home in a few weeks and spending time soaking up the sun in her pool with Clark.
She said Clark is her “angel.”
“I can never thank Benita enough,” Caldwell said.
Clark, however, is extremely modest about her selfless act of kindness. She hesitates on wearing the special shirt Caldwell’s daughter, Cameron, made for her that says, “I’m a living kidney donor. What’s your super power?” She doesn’t want people thinking she’s bragging.
Clark actually thinks this entire sequence of events was planned by a higher power long ago. Why else would Clark move from Campbellsville to Calvary in 2008, just a couple miles from Caldwell?
“I think you have a journey that is prepared for you,” Clark said. “This was a journey made for me in my life. You can’t tell me God didn’t have this planned way back when and we’re just now finding out about it. God definitely had something to do with it.”