April is National Donate Life Month: Waukon transplant from Alaska Kristin Kopperud-Stinn celebrates her 10-year heart transplant anniversary

Kristin Kopperud-Stinn...
Kristin Kopperud-Stinn...

Celebrating the gift of life ... Pictured above are Kristin Kopperud-Stinn and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Kevin Stinn three months after she received her heart transplant in 2009. Kristin will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that transplant this Thursday, April 4. Submitted photo.

by Kristin Kopperud-Stinn

April 4, 2019, I will be celebrating an enormous milestone in my life: the tenth anniversary of my heart transplant. I was born with numerous congenital heart defects, which surgeons worked tirelessly at correcting, patching or fixing prior to my transplant at the age of 24.

I participated in gym class until my freshman year of high school. I ran (or rather walked) a mile in 16 minutes and six seconds when I was in the fifth grade. I played the flute even though I had only 40% percent of a normal lung capacity for someone of my height and weight. I also played teeball and little league baseball.

By the time I reached legal drinking age, I had undergone five open-heart surgeries, two-closed heart surgeries, and countless procedures such as cardiac catheterizations and pacemaker/defibrillator placements. I spent my 21st birthday in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) while my cardiologist closely monitored how my heart responded to I.V. medication.

My parents gave me the most normal and active childhood I could handle, and though I was acutely aware of how different I was from my friends, I never knew how sick I was.

I was listed for transplant in August 2005 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. I lived with my aunt and uncle in Waverly for a year before I moved to Rochester. In early 2008 my cardiologist feared I would die before transplantation, so I was double listed at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO. I moved to a suburb of St. Louis and remained there until I received my transplant. Throughout the journey, my mother was with me every step of the way.

I waited for my heart transplant long past the national average. My health was not poor enough to be placed permanently in the hospital, yet my condition was complicated enough that doctors needed to wait for the perfect organ. When I was first listed for transplant, I carried my cellphone everywhere with me to wait for “the call.”

Every time it rang I hoped it was my transplant coordinator telling me they had received a heart. By the time I actually received “the call,” 44 months after being listed, I had left my phone in the car while I was in a museum.

April 3, 2009, I was in Chicago, IL for a birthday vacation with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. We had done normal touristy things like go to a hockey game, tour downtown and eat deep dish pizza at Gino’s East. That Friday afternoon we had decided to visit the Field Museum. My now-husband had pushed me around in my red sparkly wheelchair as we visited the different exhibits.

I was so genuinely happy that afternoon because I had stopped setting expectations for my life, and I was living each day like it was my last.  Once we finished touring the museum, we headed back to his car where, to my shock, I had a dozen missed calls. I listened to the voice messages and told my now-husband I had received “the call.”

In retrospect, I know there was divine intervention going on throughout this entire journey, but especially April 3. Somehow we were able to maneuver his car through Chicago rush hour traffic and get ourselves to the airport. We were able to buy the last two tickets to St. Louis for the day on Southwest Airlines, and we got back to Missouri with 45 minutes to spare.

I remember boarding the plane and realizing that the logo for Southwest Airlines was a heart with wings and how I cried uncontrollably on the flight due to nerves. At one point a flight attendant asked me if I’d like a complementary alcoholic beverage because they were aware of my situation and thought it might help me relax. I looked up at her and said, “I don’t think my pediatric surgeon wants alcohol in my system when they prep me for transplant.”

Once I received a call time for my transplant, my husband told me he was going to fly back to Chicago so he could get his car from the airport and drive it back down to St. Louis. During this time my father got a flight out of Anchorage, AK to be there when I woke up from surgery (I am originally from Alaska and my paternal side of the family still calls it home). My dad happened to be on the last flight out of Anchorage before the volcanic eruption from Mount Redoubt grounded all air traffic for the night.

In the wee hours of the morning of April 4, 2009, I received the best gift in the entire world - a new heart. As I was being rolled into the operating room, I realized that I would receive my transplant on my now-husband’s birthday. He would later tell me that this was the best gift in the entire world for him as well.

I think about all of the individuals who got me to this place and got me through my transplant surgery - my family, my friends, countless nurses and doctors who were willing to take a chance on me, and all the other people who offered support, prayers and words of comfort during my journey. I am overwhelmed by how much love flows in and out of my life.

Most importantly, I think about my donor and his/her family. I do not know anything about my donor. I wrote the family a thank-you card, but I never heard anything back. This happens more frequently than you would think.  I thank my donor every day for the gift of life, and the only way I know how to repay that family is to live my life to the fullest and take care of my physical and emotional health.

If you are interested in possibly becoming an organ donor, the most important thing you must do is tell your family your intentions and wishes. An attorney can help you draft the necessary paperwork to assist your family. For more information, please go to www.donatelife.net.

Your or your loved ones’ gift of life can make an enormous impact on many people, no matter how old or young you are. I cannot begin to tell you how much of a difference organ donation has made in my life, but I hope my story will inspire you to think more about organ and tissue donation.

Kristin Kopperud-Stinn moved to Waukon in January 2016 after her husband was hired at a law firm in Waukon. She graduated from Grand View University in Des Moines in 2017 with a B.A. in History. She is a part-time writer for The Standard and a substitute teacher for the Allamakee Community School District. Kristin and her husband enjoy teaching third and fourth grade Sunday School at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Waukon.  She was born and raised in Palmer, AK.

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