Organ Donation: A Personal Journey

 

I’ve become a frequent flyer on American Ambulance. These miles do not benefit me in the same way they do my brother, Jeffrey. 
 
I’m not accruing mileage for a trip to Amsterdam, Sweden, or some exciting vacation destination to bicycle with my spouse and friends while visiting local breweries. Rather, these miles are keeping me alive and, God willing, will continue to transport me as needed.
 
I’ve lost count of my many chauffeured trips to Casa de Kaweah ED (Kaweah Delta Hospital Emergency Department), yet each of these have had a successful outcome. I am still above ground and, ultimately, am able to return to my mountain home that I cherish in Three Rivers.
 
The first responder for my 911 emergencies is more likely than not Dennis Villavicencio, my hero on so many occasions. He generally arrives within minutes of the call (he lives close to us), navigates our steep, narrow road expertly (don’t all our homegrown Three Rivers kids?), and knows my health history. 
 
The moment I see Dennis, my anxiety is less, and I imagine my breathing becomes ever so slightly relaxed. 
 
Two weeks ago, I was transported via ambulance to the  hospital on Thursday in the early morning hours for an inability to move air through my bronchial tubes. I was released Friday.
 
The next day, on Saturday at 5:30 a.m., my daughter called 911 for the second time in 48 hours. But Dennis was unavailable on this one occasion as was my other paramedic buddy, John Hanggi. 
 
The unfamiliar first responder took 20 minutes to arrive. (I’m still waiting for my patient report as to the exact time of arrival from the American Ambulance dispatch.)
 
And since he didn’t know me or my medical issues, his treatment wasn’t as seasoned as Dennis or John’s. It was another 20 minutes before the ambulance arrived. 
 
At least 40 minutes at my home after the initial 911, and it was still another 45 to 50 minutes to get to the KDH Emergency Department. An hour-and-a-half for someone in extreme respiratory distress is a life or death situation! 
 
Two epinephrine injections and one magnesium injection later, the paramedics successfully kept me alive so the ED doctors could perform their miracles. I dodged a bullet once again.
 
My lesson? There is more for me to do here. I’m alive for a reason bigger than myself. 
 
Between my medical team, my chauffeurs to the Casa, and God, I’m sticking around, sassy and stubborn as ever.
 
Secondly, and an issue we as a community have to rally around, is the time it takes for an ambulance to arrive at our homes in an emergency. This problem is very real for my generation (40+) and no longer the old-timers’ concern. 
 
Gone are the days when a local ambulance team that consisted of Mary Staberg, Sandy Owen, Dennis Villavicencio, John Hanggi, Kathy Brown, or the Crain family were at your place in no time and ready to transport quickly. We lost that privilege several years ago with the disbanding of the Three Rivers Volunteer Ambulance because of a lack of volunteers to staff the ambulance and increasing state regulations that  required local EMTs to upgrade their training and become paramedics. 
 
So what can we do? 
 
—Let the County of Tulare know that it is not okay for our residents to die while waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance. 
 
—Show up at the monthly Town Hall meetings. It’s my understanding that the crowd was sparse at the December meeting when discussing local emergency needs was on the agenda. I know I will show up toting my oxygen e-tank after years of hiding out on the hill when this issue returns to the agenda.
 
Our family is having to reevaluate our backup plan as there will be future frequent flyer miles accumulated until I receive my two beautiful new lungs. 
 
We have considered moving me to Visalia, minutes away from the hospital. I’m not such a huge fan of this one as we could be waiting another year, or two, for my transplant. 
 
We live near the Sequoia entrance, so another option is to meet the ambulance in the center of town as soon as I notice my breathing changes ever so slightly. Err on the side of caution as the next ride could be my final one. 
 
However, others don’t have this luxury or the previous experience to make a decision to rendezvous with the ambulance.
 
I urge each of you to make your voice heard. This is a critical service that literally is a game-changer. 
 
And, Dennis, no more time off okay?
 
This is another installment in a series of articles on the importance of organ donation. Rachelle Ledbetter has been on the list for a double lung transplant since November 2016. Rachelle and her husband, Steve Swinney, have lived in Three Rivers for 31 years. Rachelle has allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) and bronchiestasis. She is dependent on supplementary oxygen 24 hours a day.

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