Hi, my name is Jen Rossi. I am a two-time liver transplant recipient. In my honor, and because she has developed such a passion for this platform, my 12-year-old daughter, Brooke, travels the US telling our story, educating youngsters about the importance of organ donation. I am forever grateful for my gifts of life, but I think she offers a unique perspective on being a small child going through something like this. I would like you to hear her story - as written by her ...
I’m going to tell you the story of my mom and how organ donation changed my life. My mom calls me her special miracle baby because, in part, I am here because a family chose to support organ donation and donated their loved one’s liver to her on November 12, 2002. According to the stories I’ve been told since I can remember, my mom was in a coma and was not expected to make it. In fact, my brother, who was six at the time, was on his way to UCLA Medical Center to say goodbye to her when they got the call that a donor had been found. My mom was young and strong and only had to remain in hospital for 14 days.
It wasn’t that the doctors had told my mom not to have me, but she was cautioned against the possibility that things could go wrong. Determined, I arrived nearly five weeks early and perfectly healthy, although the doctors were correct - it was tough on my mom and her new liver. She was hospitalized when I was just 16 weeks old with her first bout of rejection which the doctors were able to correct with medication. We laugh a lot about when I was tiny because a lot of my firsts happened at UCLA Medical Center: my first steps, my first words and so on, simply because there are real ups and downs when you are a transplant patient. As such, it has always been part of my life too and I learned early on about so many medical terms, sicknesses and treatments. I could navigate my way around the eighth floor of UCLA on my own and, when I was tiny, would hold my mom’s hand as she took her daily walks around the nurses’ station.
In 2015, aged 10, I was preparing to go through what my brother had in his early years: my mom had to have another liver transplant because she had autoimmune hepatitis resulting from disintegrating bile ducts. For the first time in my life I had to think about the possibility of her not being at every school event, pageant and award ceremony; even just tucking me in and kissing me good night. After taking me cross-country for ten days so I could compete at my national level pageant, her body finally gave out. The day after returning she was in hospital and we were told there was no recovery this time; she needed another transplant and wouldn’t leave the hospital without one.
Although it was only 18 days before she was transplanted, those days were some of the hardest in my life. After all, I was raised knowing about all of this stuff. My mom is a nurse, she educated us about organ donation and transplantation, she was an Ambassador for One Legacy and she did public speaking and the Donate Life walks. I was scared; WE were scared. When my mom said that she was going to have another liver transplant I was really worried about whether she would make it out alive and asked a lot of questions about why this had happened. Every night I cried myself to sleep because I missed her and didn’t know if she would survive. I couldn’t see her every day because I was at school and she was pretty far away from home. Just as she did, every day we waited for that call, but day after day it didn’t come. We would visit and she would look more and more sick; she was forgetful, she lost the use of her legs and wasn’t eating. I overheard one of doctors telling my dad that her kidneys were shutting down.
She had her liver transplant on August 15th. The surgery took almost five hours. Afterwards we were allowed in to see her - she was still unconscious, not breathing on her own and she had two black eyes. My brother and I talked to the doctors and they said that the transplant was difficult but she was okay. I felt very relieved. This time she was in the hospital for almost three months.
In pageantry we select a platform, something we talk about to educate people - a passion, an illness or a need. Every mentor tells us to select one that is near and dear to your heart, that drives you from a passion or a place within. When being interviewed for pageants, it is important to be knowledgeable about your platform, not only from having read about it but also from having lived and experienced it. I can definitely say my platform of Donate Life is very near and dear to my heart. I can speak to anyone about the true importance of organ donation and transplantation and move them, simply by telling them my story and how I get to have my mom by my side at every pageant and award ceremony and to kiss me and tuck me in at night – just because a very special family out there chose to see past their grief in one of the worst moments of their life and saved my mom.
Many of my classmates this year got Happy National Donor Day cards from me with Donate Life pins attached because, while Valentine’s Day is surely popular, I wanted to celebrate every donor and their family out there on that day. I took the opportunity to share my platform with each of my teachers and asked them to wear their pins to show their support. I make sure that no matter where I go, my Donate Life pin goes with me. It is my belief that by educating our young people now, if we can get the message out by the time they have to choose to place the pink dot on their licence, they will do so. Together as a family, we want to bring awareness to the great need for organ, eye, tissue and blood donors; we support and go to the Donate Life walks and try to educate as people about organ donation and how it can empower so many. I am now a future donor and will definitely be placing that pink dot on my licence when I turn 16.