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She Missed A Vacation, But Got Life’s Gift, Twice

A kidney and liver transplant recipient recounts her health journey that's led her back on track and on her feet again.
Patient running outside.
The road to recovery wasn't easy—both physically and emotionally—but today McMichael is an active volunteer at her church and runs to stay active.

There is a section of the forms you fill out at the doctor’s office that requests your family’s medical history. My mother died when I was in high school and I lost my father 10 years later. Before 1999, I did not know that either or both of my parents had polycystic kidney disease. It’s a genetic condition that causes cysts to grow on the kidneys and liver and eventually damages them. After I suffered with a fever for over a month, a cat scan revealed that I had the disease. I think that my mother may have had it, as she had five miscarriages before she was able to have kids. I, too, lost my first born, a baby boy whose kidneys never developed in utero. Although very difficult to go through at the time, I am grateful to have two beautiful daughters.

Upon being diagnosed, I saw doctors every two to six months to assess the function and health of my kidney and liver. I remember being aware of my condition, but my quality of life did not change at first. My belly extended from the cysts on my liver so I got used to sleeping on my back, and when I played with my two daughters when they were little, I would block my stomach in case they bumped it because it would hurt. Otherwise, I enjoyed my active lifestyle, balancing time with my family in Glenside, a workout schedule and a full-time job at Abington Hospital as a medical student and geriatric fellowship coordinator.

Life slowed down dramatically as my liver continued to grow with cysts and crowd out my other organs. At the same time, a doctor told me that my kidneys were failing and that I would need to be evaluated for a transplant and start dialysis. Instead of going on a family trip to Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, I stayed home because my dialysis treatments drained me of all my energy. It broke my heart not to go. We had been going for the past five years. I kept thinking, can I try? Can I try to keep up? The day after my kids left on the trip with our friends, I was food shopping with my husband Steve when I got the call. I remember the shock of learning that there was a kidney and liver for me, and I would need to be at the hospital in an hour for surgery. I rushed to my husband, who was standing at the deli counter, told him to leave the lunchmeat, and we took off.

I needed to heal not only physically but also emotionally. I struggled with the feeling that I needed to be a better person, questioned why I was chosen to get this second chance at life.

I felt like a VIP when I arrived to Jefferson. My transplant surgeon, Dr. Warren Maley, was in my room 10 minutes after I got there with the anesthesiologist. It happened so fast and they were all just so fun and positive. I felt safe.

After my transplant, the road to recovery was not a smooth course. I think the hardest part was realizing that someone had to die in order for me to live. It was like time stopped for those first six weeks of recovery. I moved into my sister Mary Fran’s home with my two daughters, and she took care of us. My husband would come over and we would all eat dinner together. It’s funny the things you take for granted.

Patient with two daughters.

McMichael with her two daughter.

I needed to heal not only physically but also emotionally. I struggled with the feeling that I needed to be a better person, questioned why I was chosen to get this second chance at life. Becoming an active volunteer in my church youth organization helped me heal my soul, and I grew physically stronger day by day. I signed up for a gym membership, and even ran a 5K. It’s something I love to do now, and I take pride in being healthy enough to do it.

I am no longer blocking my stomach. The pain there has subsided. I no longer need to pass up family vacations.  I am grateful for my life, the life of the donor who gave me my second chance, our family and friends who said prayers, made us meals, and were always there for us, Jefferson’s transplant team, and the gift of sitting on a sunny beach with my family.

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