May 14, 2010
Ashley Brown, who earns her Master of Social Work degree Saturday from Baylor University's School of Social Work, has more reason than most to celebrate her achievement. Her graduation comes just days before she undergoes her second kidney transplant in 10 years.
The past year has been arduous and often life-threatening for the 27- year old graduate student from East Texas. Last fall, she began experiencing symptoms of kidney malfunction - sluggishness, nausea, fluid retention. They were symptoms she knew all too well; she had experienced them before at age 17.
"From September to December last year, I would drive home Thursdays after my last class, get up the next morning and be in Houston by 6 and run the chemo treatment until 2. Sunday I would drive back to Waco."
Ashley said she would be back in class on Monday, nauseated and depleted, but "so thankful to work on my degree and do what I needed to do."
Treatment no longer working
On Dec. 28, her doctor told her the treatment was not working, and they began the work-ups to find another candidate for organ donation. Nevertheless, she began the spring semester in January and her 35-hour-a-week field internship at Saint Catherine Center in Waco, an extended-stay nursing facility for seniors with disabilities.
"Her field supervisor at Saint Catherine kept trying to make adjustments for Ashley, but she refused all of them," said Helen Harris, senior lecturer at the School of Social Work and her internship seminar instructor. "She simply isn't open to doing the bare minimum. She wanted the full experience."
On April 16, Ashley completed her field placement and immediately went to see her doctor in Houston. He admitted her for dialysis that night at Methodist Hospital, where she stayed for a week. Her classmates in Waco were finishing the semester and preparing for their intensive two-week Capstone project, which would culminate in a presentation at Colloquium May 4. It is the foundation of a graduate students' grade and necessary to successfully complete the degree.
"I participated in the first week of Capstone from my hospital bed through Skype," she said, but she was determined to be in her class. "My prayer, what I kept bargaining with the doctor about, was 'You let me finish May 4, and you can have me May 5,'" she said. So on April 23, she was released from the hospital and short-term dialysis treatment was arranged for her in Waco.
On May 4, she successfully presented her research on "Assessing Depression with Older Adults." She stayed to support a couple of her classmates in their presentations and then went to her four-hour dialysis session, which she continues to receive three times a week.
Jim Ellor, associate professor at the School, taught Ashley in several classes in the gerontology track and taught her Capstone section. He refers to her "dogged determination to get to her goal," but adds, "It's an internal strength that she's claimed for herself that makes her so admirable."
Ashley had to discover that strength at an early age. Born with a congenital medical condition, she underwent 32 surgeries by age 12. Then her health stabilized and, like many young teens, she was active in church groups and a dance team, even planning for an upcoming ski trip. On a routine health check-up in 2000, though, her doctor said her kidneys were malfunctioning.
"We didn't know what to think. I had never had trouble with my kidneys," she said.
A few months later, she had her first kidney transplant, with her mother as the donor.
Ashley says she never thought her medical history was extraordinary. As a child, she gave her doll a scar on her stomach with a permanent marker so it would be just like her.
"When you grow up with health problems, it's your 'normal,' and you don't think about it that much. Plus I have an amazing family, especially my mom."
Her mother, Kathie, is a nurse and works in home health care, primarily with older patients. From the moment they received the renal failure diagnosis, Kathie has researched the medical information and advocated for her daughter.
"She's always been very honest with me, even when I was younger," Ashley said. "She kept it age-appropriate, but she always told me what was going to happen, and I appreciate that so much. I would ask her, 'If I were your patient and not your daughter, what would you tell me?'"
Advocacy for patient
That model of honesty and directness is one Ashley wants to offer to her clients as a medical social worker. She knows from personal experience how frightened and confusing misinformation can be for a person first diagnosed with organ failure.
"A lot of times what we don't know scares us. If we just know the honest facts, it helps people not be so scared," she says.
Ashley had to pull on her determination again just to complete her Bachelor of Social Work degree at Stephen F. Austin University, which took 8 years. Because of the medications she takes daily to suppress her immune system, she is particularly susceptible to infections. "Even a common cold can put you in the hospital," she said. At times she missed an entire semester, and once a whole year, but she kept making the one-hour commute from her home. "I was just real determined to finish. I've always been that way; if something is really important to me, I want to finish it."
Brother donates kidney
Next week it will be Ashley's brother, Ryan, 25, who will donate his kidney. Ashley says she refuses to ask anyone to be a donor, but her brother simply said, "Tell me when and where and I'll be there." Unlike his sister, he's never had a serious medical problem in his life. Fortunately, Ashley says, the donor procedure is much less complicated than it was previously, and often now can be done with laparoscopy.
"I'm more worried about my mom, who will have both her kids in surgery!" she said.
Ashley will spend the summer recovering -- she cannot be in crowds of people for three months because of her suppressed immune system -- but already she has feelers out about job opportunities. To her, the transplants and her medical history are all part of a bigger picture.
"People ask me if I don't wonder why this happened to me and if I'm not angry with God," she said. "I can't be mad because I feel like everything I've gone through is preparing me for a bigger picture. It's not just about me. If I can help somebody and keep somebody from going through the fear and confusion I went through, then it has all been so that I could serve a greater purpose."
Her family is coming up to Waco Saturday to see her walk across the stage, and they were also present April 29 at the School's Family Dinner, where Ashley received the MSW Spirit of Social Work award. The person who nominated her said, "I've never known any student who wanted to be a social worker as much as Ashley does."
Ashley said she's excited and proud. "I'm sure a lot of people along the way thought I wasn't going to make it, but all the time I was thinking, 'Yes I will. You just watch me.' This is mine and nobody can take that from me now. I've earned every bit of it."
Misconceptions and inaccuracies about organ donation persist. Here are some facts to help you better understand organ, eye and tissue donation:
Anyone can be a potential donor regardless of age, race or medical history.
All major religions in the United States support organ, eye and tissue donation and see it as the final act of love and generosity toward others.
If you are sick or injured and admitted to the hospital, the No. 1 priority is to save your life. Organ, eye and tissue donation can only be considered after you are deceased.
When you are on the waiting list for an organ, what really counts is the severity of your illness, time spent waiting, blood type and other important medical information, not your financial status or celebrity status.
An open casket funeral is possible for organ, eye and tissue donors. Through the entire donation process the body is treated with care, respect and dignity.
Fact: There is no cost to the donor or their family for organ or tissue donation.
SOURCE: Donate Life America. www.donatelife.net/UnderstandingDonation/LearnTheFacts.php