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Donate to Life Month: Ryan Pickering's Story

  • Category: Blogs
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  • Written By: Alyssa Hinman
Donate to Life Month: Ryan Pickering's Story

Thanks to organ and tissue donors from Flagler Health+, in 2022 alone, 5 lives were saved through organ donation, nearly 1,650 individuals had their health restored through tissue donation, and 26 individuals had their sight restored through cornea donation. These life-changing gifts impact real lives – not only for the recipient but also for their families, friends, and loved ones. Donate Life Month is recognized nationally every April. Ryan Pickering, a 2-time lung transplant recipient and husband of Emilie Pickering, Flagler Health+ Ambulatory Project Manager, shares his story about how the gift of life forever changed his own.

During his senior semester at Florida Gulf Coast University, Ryan recalls getting noticeably winded at work while walking just a short distance. That's when he knew something was wrong.

He went to a pulmonologist for a complete workup. Soon after, they called Ryan back into the office to review the results, and the doctor gave the news that a lung transplant was needed.

Ryan says, "Your first thought is, ‘How long do I have?’ It was a lot for me because, at the time, I was only 23 years old and hadn't even graduated college or really started my life yet, and I had to face this."

After all of the required testing, on August 28, 2012, Ryan was finally approved and added to the transplant waiting list for a single right lung transplant. He waited for 172 days. Against doctor's orders, Ryan pulled himself off the transplant list to attend his sister's wedding in December 2013. Everything after that, Ryan believes, was divine intervention.

On February 16, 2013, one of Ryan's college roommates called him at 2 am, but Ryan let it go to voicemail. At the time, he was sick and on 20-30 liters of oxygen per day. The roommate texted him quickly after saying, “My girlfriend's brother-in-law has just passed, and we are trying to give you his lungs." Appreciative, Ryan called back and explained to his friend that “it doesn't work like that.”

The lungs are the most complex organs to match because not only do blood types need to match, tissue types need to match as well. However, he remembers thinking at the time how amazing this friend was to try and save his life.

And they left it at that.

Only hours later, Ryan received the call he had been waiting for. A perfectly matched single right lung became available for transplant. All because someone believed in a miracle.

The day he received the lung transplant was emotional, but his then-girlfriend, Emilie, stayed by his side, holding his hand. “On one end, everyone in my room is celebrating,” he said. “But on the other end, a family is grieving because their loved one has passed.” Ryan knows that the gift he was given came at a cost. Since that day, Ryan has connected with his donor’s wife, Sharleen. She and her daughters became “a big part of my life and even came to our wedding."

Ryan says he could finally live a little because of that first transplant. Six months after the transplant, he married the woman who had been by his side the entire journey. Two years later, they welcomed their first of three children.

The most common long-term complication of a lung transplant is chronic rejection. Approximately half of all recipients experience this within five years of transplant. The lungs have higher rejection rates than other transplanted organs, as lungs tend to have a stronger immune response than other organs. Thankfully, Ryan enjoyed every moment of his life for seven years before his body rejected the organ.

In September 2019, his health started to change drastically. Ryan knew something wasn't right because he began to feel short of breath. Doctors determined the inevitable; his body was rejecting his new lung. Ryan says that by the grace of God, he was put through a second workup to see yet again if he was healthy enough to survive the surgery a second time. When the doctors determined he could be listed, he was put back on the transplant list, where many don’t ever get their call.

But on April 17, 2020, Ryan got the call. This time, it was completely different because this set of lungs was deemed suitable for transplant by the procurement team, which supervises the acquisition of needed goods and services. Ryan ended up contracting MRSA and Hepatitis C due to this transplant. Ryan says he “had no choice but to trust in my faith and accept the gift that was given to me again.” After weeks of treatment and Ryan never losing faith, doctors treated the MRSA and Hepatitis C.

Transplants aren't a cure; they prolong life. Knowing this, Ryan continues to ask himself what he will do with the extra time he's been given.

"My transplants have taught me to slow down and live in the moment. If you had told me 12 years ago, when I was getting ready for my first transplant, that I would now have kids and a family, I wouldn't have believed you,” Ryan explained. “People often take major life events for granted because they spend every waking moment working towards a goal, but I haven't been able to do that my whole life. I have no idea how long I have left on Earth, so every moment has become that much more significant."

Emilie adds, “We are forever grateful for the families that said yes to organ donation. Organ transplants have allowed Ryan and me to continue our journey together, start a family, and share the gift of life with our children.

While technology has continued to change and expand the pool of organ and tissue donors, Ryan and Emilie believe there is still more we can do as a society regarding organ transplants. They encourage people to be more open to discussing organ and tissue donation options with their loved ones and recommend that people seek accurate information about the process before making their personal choice.

Visit LifeQuestfla.org, LifeNetHealthFlorida.org, LionsEyeInstitute.org/, or donatelife.net to learn more and/or register as an organ or tissue donor. In continued support for Donate Life Month in April, Flagler Health+ will hold a flag-raising ceremony on April 14, 2023, at 10 am.