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When Dawn Odenthal sat down for a meeting with her colleague Jolinda Conzemius in June 2014, organ donation was nowhere on her radar. The two women knew one another through their work at a company that specializes in school photography, yearbooks, church directories and other forms of memory preservation. Dawn is a regional sales director, and Jolinda is a photographer. They were meeting to talk about a project they had been assigned to work on together. By the time they got up from the table that afternoon, however, they had started a process that would culminate in Dawn donating one of her kidneys to Jolinda for a life-altering kidney transplant at Mayo Clinic. “I absolutely wanted to do this for her,” says Dawn. “There wasn’t a question in my mind.”
Six years ago, Robert Clark thought he was having a stroke. His left eye drooped shut, and he began to have difficulty swallowing. A competitive body builder used to working out six times a week, Robert rarely got sick. So when a local physician dismissed his symptoms, he sought out a friend who worked at Mayo Clinic. His friend recommended he see Paul Brazis, M.D., a physician who specializes in neuro-ophthalmology. After examining Robert, Dr. Brazis suspected myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune disorder characterized by weakness and fatigue of the skeletal muscles as a result of an enlarged thymus. The thymus, an H-shaped gland situated in the upper chest that produces T-cells to fight disease, is supposed to shrink after birth, when bone marrow takes over this function. Following a series of tests, the diagnosis of myasthenia gravis was confirmed. Robert then faced difficult decisions about managing his disease while living life as he wanted.
Isaac Jackson was living a peaceful life, with a large, loving family, a successful law practice, and lifelong friends, when in early 2014, his life changed dramatically. In January, Isaac began feeling sick whenever he ate. A visit to his primary care doctor in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, led to an initial diagnosis of gallstones. But when an MRI of Isaac’s abdomen showed that the entire right side of his liver was no longer working and his bile ducts were almost completely blocked, his physician promptly connected him with specialists in Seattle. “We were scared but thought that I was suffering from some sort of bile duct disease. We were hopeful,” Isaac recalls. “Unfortunately, our worst fears came true, and it put our family to the test. How would we respond? Would we stay hopeful? Would we be grateful for what we had?”
Stacy Neumayer was a teenager when she received her first kidney transplant. Her health problems began when she was 4 years old. Over time, Stacy developed a condition called glomerulonerphritis, which causes inflammation in the tiny pockets of the kidneys that help remove excess fluid, electrolytes and waste from the bloodstream. The illness affected Stacy’s kidney function, and she was put on dialysis until a donor kidney became available. “Eventually my body and my kidneys started shutting down, so I went on dialysis until I had my first transplant,” Stacy says. “Unfortunately, my body rejected the donor organ before I even left the hospital, so it was back to dialysis.”
The first time Tehya Mrotek had a seizure during class, she had just begun high school. Most of the faculty and staff at Stewartville High School didn’t know how to respond to Tehya’s condition. The school nurse recognized what had happened, however. The nurse explained it to Tehya when she regained consciousness from her tonic-clonic episode. But Tehya’s teachers and support staff weren’t very familiar with epilepsy and were not equipped to administer seizure first-aid, says Tehya’s mother, Tamra Mrotek. That was six years ago. Within three years, not only had all of Tehya’s teachers and administrators become proficient in epilepsy education, but the town of Stewartville had received certification as a Seizure Smart Community from the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.
Stephanie Cortez had been battling the scale for most of her 47 years. Weighing 240 pounds, the Lake Park, Georgia, resident decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery in 2008 in the hopes of losing a hundred pounds. Stephanie made steady progress for the next six years. She adopted and maintained a healthier lifestyle and better eating habits. Then she hit a roadblock. In 2014, Stephanie developed a bleeding ulcer in the stomach pouch created during her surgery. Though the ulcer healed, scar tissue created additional problems, including a narrowing of the area between the stomach pouch and intestine. The condition, called the gastrojejunal anastomosis, caused an intestinal obstruction.
It started with ear pain in the spring of 2014. Within a few weeks, Gloria Pena’s earache escalated into confusion and sensory loss. “I thought it was a bad cold with an earache,” Gloria recalls. “But one day I picked up my son from school and didn’t remember the way home.” From there, Gloria’s condition spiraled downward. Eventually, the 36-year-old mother of two ended up in an intensive care unit in a coma, diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis, a serious condition in which Gloria’s immune system was attacking her brain. Determined to find help for his wife, Gloria’s husband, Emmanuel, brought her to Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. Although it took time, her Mayo Clinic care team was able to save Gloria and put her on the path to recovery.
When Gary Pearson went in for a routine physical required by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to maintain his commercial driving privileges, he left with much more than a renewed driver’s license. The 58-year-old departed his appointment with an urgent directive from the nurse practitioner that examined him to see his primary care doctor. The reason: Gary had a bulbous lump on his neck. “If she hadn’t found it, who knows how long it would’ve taken to detect it,” says Gary of Claudia Swanton, the advanced practice nurse in Mayo Clinic’s Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine who performed the exam.