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Michigan woman pens book about daughter, organ donation

Sara Schmidt, who became an organ donor, hugs her mother, Donna Ternes

“But God” chronicles difficult life that led to a decision to save others

Sara Schmidt’s final act saved two lives. A registered organ and tissue donor, her gifts saved two other women – one in Pennsylvania and one in Chicago – after she died in 2018 at the age of 34.

“I’m so thankful she was a donor,” said her mother, Donna Ternes. “It was the smartest thing she’s ever done. In all the things she did in her life, that was the best thing she did.”

"But God" book cover, featuring pink Stargazer LilliesTernes has written a book about her experience with her daughter – all of the ups and downs throughout her life, and her decision to be an organ donor. It chronicles her battles with addiction and includes some of her paintings and photography. Entitled “But God,” it is available through Christian Faith Publishing and at bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

“I share what was going on in my heart,” Ternes said. “I’m hoping it can help people out there who are going through what I did.”

Sharing stories of donors and recipients is also a goal of National Donor Day, which is observed on Feb. 14 every year. Initiated in 1998, National Donor Day is dedicated to spreading awareness and education about organ, eye and tissue donation, and also celebrates those who have provided or received the gift of life. More than 100,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant in the U.S., including nearly 2,400 here in Michigan.

Ternes said her daughter was a painter and a photographer and, like her mother, kept journals throughout her life. Schmidt’s struggles with addiction came to a head in December of 2018, when Ternes was called to the hospital, where she found her daughter on a ventilator with no chance of recovery. Ternes said Gift of Life Michigan staff helped reassure her that her daughter made the right decision when she signed up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry nearly two decades earlier.

Meanwhile, Sarah McPharlin was waiting for a miracle. McPharlin had heart issues dating back to her childhood.

“I was a perfectly healthy 12-year-old, with no problems at all,” McPharlin said. “Then one day I passed out in the swimming pool.”

She was told her heart was too large for her body and it would not heal on its own. Her condition was treated with an LVAD and she was placed on the transplant list – and received a new heart in 2001, when she was 13.

McPharlin’s good health did not last, however. A virus attacked her new heart and complications from the medicine and procedures she required for most of her life also damaged her liver and kidneys. She not only needed another new heart, she needed a liver and kidney, too.

The complicated multi-organ transplant was not readily available in Michigan so McPharlin, then 29, moved to Chicago with her parents and was listed through the University of Chicago Medicine. UChicago Medicine performed the first heart-liver-kidney transplant in Illinois in 1999 and they were about to make history, again.

McPharlin and Daru Smith, also 29, became the first patients to receive back-to-back heart-kidney-liver transplants in history. Both procedures took place between Dec. 19-21, 2018. Four years later, McPharlin is doing well. An occupational therapist, she currently works in the outpatient therapy department at UChicago Medicine.

“Things have been going great,” McPharlin said. “You always have little hiccups along the way, but things are going great right now. I’m active and healthy and I’m so grateful.”

For more information or to sign up as a donor, visit golm.org/register.

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