Guest Blogger: Jennie Zastrow on Her Father’s Experience with Organ Donation

As National Donate Life Month comes to a close, we’re honored to welcome Jennie Zastrow as a guest blogger! Jennie’s father, Ron Zastrow, knows all too well the importance of organ donors. After suffering heart problems for many years, he found himself on the transplant list with an uncertain future. However, thanks to an organ donor, Ron was able to receive a new heart before it was too late.

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My Dad, Ron Zastrow, had suffered heart problems for twenty years. A massive heart attack in 1991, at the age of 38, required a triple bypass surgery. After a few minor changes to his lifestyle, life resumed as normal. Unfortunately, a few years later, Dad suffered another heart attack and was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia, leading him to have an internal defibrillator, which prevented his heart from racing. Again, Dad’s life was on track, but scar tissue from previous surgeries had done damage to his valves. It was then the doctor’s replaced his mitral valve. The replacement surgery was a success, but unfortunately, life did not return to normal. Many chronic problems surfaced including atrial fibrillation, and now a pacemaker was necessary to keep his heart firing correctly.

Dad had always been a hard worker, as it showed in his will to live. Dad’s struggle to live meant constant trips to doctors’ appointments and hospital stays. His quality of life declined considerably.

Dad is a talented, skilled worker. His finds joy in yard work and any kind of home remodeling. His talents show themselves as well in beautiful, custom-made furniture. However, after his heart issues, all that came to a sudden halt. Just making dinner was a struggle. Much of the day was spent sleeping in his chair, trying to recoup some energy for the remainder of his day. That’s when he found a new doctor with a different strategy. This new approach would allow Dad to live. Medications were changed and so was the hospital.  Dad would find the light at the end of the tunnel in Rochester, NY. At Strong Memorial Hospital, Dad would again be evaluated, but this time for a heart transplant. We now had an answer and hopefully a solution.

Mom accompanied Dad for his initial appointment at Strong Memorial. How excited we were! Our prayers were being answered. However, test results were not good. Dad was given a year to live and waiting for the donor heart would be completely different than expected. Given Dad’s condition, he would have to spend his time on the transplant list at Strong Memorial Hospital, not at home. Dad was sent home to prepare for his stay at Strong. The hospital could not guarantee how long it would take to receive a donor heart, a week, a month, a year. No one knew, plus, donor organs were not readily available.

After years of illness, we were so happy there was a potential solution to Dad’s illness, but my family was scared. What if no heart was available in time? That was it?! Dad had worked so hard to live. Would he wait in the hospital to die?

Strong Memorial Hospital, the closest heart transplant hospital to our home, was ninety minutes away. Dad would spend that time mostly alone since we still had jobs and responsibilities at home. As flexible as my mom’s work schedule was, ninety miles left my dad without the company to help boost his morale.

Dad’s long road of ‘not knowing’ began at Strong Memorial in October of 2012. While waiting, he lost more than eighty pounds and his health was failing at an alarming rate. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and even birthdays were spent at the hospital. Then, suddenly, our blessing happened.

One day, Dad called each one of us singly to say, “Honey, it’s time.” Those three words were the most powerful words I had ever heard in my whole life! Our prayers had been answered. The time was here! We were so unbelievably happy, words can’t explain it!

The future was very bright. My dad’s worries of not living to see his daughters get married and to see his future grandchildren was no longer. He was going to have his life back! He wasn’t going to be sick anymore!

Mother’s Day 2013 meant the beginning of another new life. We jumped out of bed at 3:45 a.m with tears of joy. Though our bags were packed for eight months waiting for this moment, our excitement still stalled us.

At 9 a.m. Dad went down for surgery, but our excitement would soon be over. Around noon he returned to his room; the heart wasn’t viable. Even though we knew this could happen, we were devastated. Yet as quickly as our hopes were over, they were back.  Roughly fifteen minutes later, the transplant team came in and said, “We have another heart for you.” They had known about a second heart since that morning but needed to run all the necessary tests to see if it was a compatible match. It was and around 8 p.m., my Dad went down to surgery again.

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The heart finally arrived at the hospital at about 1 a.m. Strong Memorial’s transplant coordinator updated us every hour during the transplant. It was an incredibly long surgery and no sleep would be had by any of us. By 6:00 a.m., we got the news of a successful surgery and by 6:30 a.m., we would be able to see with our own eyes that Dad was thriving. It had been an emotional roller coaster for us. We were happy but scared, excited but worried. How was Dad feeling? Was he going to be ok? All we wanted was to walk into his room and yell, “It’s over and it’s all ok!” We were thrilled.

Seeing him for the first time was surreal. Color had already returned in his face and he looked AMAZING! We could see how strong his pulse was in his neck. The edema that was in his legs on and off over the past few years was already completely gone. All of this only a half hour after his transplant! We felt like the weight of the world was off our shoulders. We could breathe. My Dad was going to have a second chance at life!

The challenges of those eight months had been well worth it. Surgery was a success and the courage my dad showed was a lesson to his family of one’s resilience and strength.  Within two days, Dad was off the respirator. Within a week he was walking, making a point to walk from ICU to his hospital room. It was a powerful message to all of us.

There were a few post-surgical complications, but he was finally released from the hospital in September 2013. A year has now passed since he’d left his home to start the transplant journey. It is exciting to have him home!

Even though Dad’s recovery has been mostly positive, there have been a few hiccups.  Kidney failure, the result of his heart failure and medications, mandated dialysis, and he’s now on the kidney transplant list. However, we believe he’s on the right road since he’s able to do all the things he loves.

What makes his journey so special is the kindness, generosity and selflessness of a family who was willing to donate a loved one’s heart.

The donor heart saved a life. Not just any life, my Dad’s life. My dad used his original heart with only the best intentions and will honor this donor heart in the same way. The donor’s heart will beat to see daughters get married and grandchildren born. This heart will share every blessed event in a wonderful man’s life. We thank God every day that my dad is still here with us. Simply put, because of a donor-family’s ability to see through its own sadness and amazing act of kindness, my dad did not have to die.

Our family is living proof that organ and tissue donation lives on in the happiness of another family. We will be forever thankful of not only our donor, but also every other organ and tissue donor who gives the gift of life to complete strangers.

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Help make a difference in the lives of others with our Life Preserver Charm Bangle. Through December 2015, 20% of proceeds received by Alex and Ani from selling the Life Preserver bangle, with a minimum donation of $25,000, will be donated to Donate Life America, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit alliance of national organizations and state teams across the United States dedicated to saving and healing lives through increased organ, eye and tissue donation.

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