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New health delights transplant patients

267 people are on lists awaiting organ donations in Utah

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It wasn't until Richard Ream got sick that he really got healthy.

The 52-year-old heart transplant recipient was sick for a long time — short of breath and unable to exert himself — before he was listed as a candidate for a heart transplant. To get on the list, patients must keep themselves in good physical condition. After all, doctors don't want to give a good heart to an unhealthy patient.

So Ream started working out. Now, 40 weeks after his heart transplant, he works out two hours a day, five days a week. It's a small sacrifice for living.

"Life is so grand," Ream said. "I can climb mountains and ride bikes and do things like celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary."

Ream and six other transplant recipients spoke Thursday at the University of Utah Hospital to spotlight National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week, which will be April 15-21.

Each of the seven recipients expressed gratitude they were able to receive the organs they needed.

"I have my life back," said Judith Blain, a bilateral cornea transplant recipient. "I can see. Life is a lot different."

In Utah, 267 people await organ donations. The greatest number of people are waiting for kidney donations, which can come from living donors, unlike most other organ donations.

Amy Stevenson, 13, received a kidney from her mother, Mary Stevenson, approximately 10 months ago.

"I learned that sacrifice is a relative term," Mary said. "I learned a lot."

Amy now enjoys eating ice cream, something she couldn't do before her transplant when she was a dialysis patient, and she said it's now "lots better than not having kidneys."

Donors must meet strict qualifications before giving up an organ, said Kim Phillips, the manager for solid organ transplant services.

People tend to think certain health problems will disqualify them, which is generally not the case, Phillips said. For example, diabetics are usually eligible to donate, as long as they are in good health otherwise.

Organ transplants can be costly, however, and insurance companies aren't always willing to ante up. In a forthcoming study, the U. Hospital found that 40 percent of its transplant patients experienced financial difficulty because of their transplants, Phillips said. Ream's transplant surgery bill alone (excluding pre- and post-operative care) came to $110,000. Most patients also take handfuls of anti-rejection medication each day. With tabs such as those, insurance coverage can mean the difference between taking life-saving medications or paying the heating bill.

Despite the financial difficulties and the dozens of pills recipients must take every day, they all say it's worth it.

"I see life in a different way," said lung recipient DelJean Johnson. "Things that were so big and terrible before are minuscule now."

E-MAIL: kswinyard@desnews.com