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The fight for life: Lisa Carmichael is a transplant warrior

August 20, 2020

Lisa Carmichael has beat the odds stacked against her time and time again.

Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at 33 years old, the diagnosis immediately brought back many thoughts of her family.

Lisa’s mother died at 42 from the disease, and her grandfather died in 1955 from heart failure.

“It was very difficult losing our mother to cardiomyopathy when I was 14,” Lisa said. “I knew my mother wasn’t feeling well but had no idea that she was so sick that she might die. I went through so many emotions of things that I wish I had never said, things that I wish I had said, and I was upset that I never got that good-bye moment.”

Lisa finished junior high with her mother, never suspecting she would start high school as the girl whose mother had died. They were still relatively new in their community, but people knew about it because of the dramatic fashion in which the ambulance, firetruck and lifelight helicopter all showed up on their street in the middle of the night.

“All through high school, I’d watch other girls with their mothers prepare for different life events, including college visits, and I was incredibly heartbroken that I did not have my own mother to share that experience with,” Lisa said. “Education was her primary goal in life.”

Despite her medical history, doctors still questioned if Lisa’s heart problems were hereditary.

Lisa went to the doctor after feeling heart palpitations and generally not feeling well. Her doctors attributed it to being a young mom working a lot and traveling a lot.

But Lisa knew something more was wrong.

She would eventually be listed for a heart transplant the Tuesday after Labor Day in 2012.

She had been sick for nearly a decade and had many procedures the two years leading up to her transplant. “I fought really hard to stay alive and felt like a warrior the morning of transplant,” Lisa said in a video for the American Heart Association. “The first time I saw myself in the mirror after transplant was almost a week and a half after transplant and I was in utter shock from everything I had gone through. I felt like a science project.

“I’m proud that I was able to live through this and that I’m here today.”

Lisa can still recall the moment she received the call letting her know a heart was available for her. She was sitting in the hospital.

“It was a moment of joy and sadness at the same time,” she said. “I knew that I would live, but another family had experienced a terrible loss.”

By that time, Lisa’s sister had also had a heart transplant due to the same heart complications.

“I think this has made our relationship stronger because we understand what each other is going through,” Lisa said of her relationship with her sister. “We are closer because we understand more than anyone what the other’s experience is with post-transplant life.”

The milestones Lisa gets to experience thanks to transplant still hit home to this day.

Lisa’s son was the same age at the time Lisa received her transplant as she was when she lost her own mom.

“I didn’t want him to lose me like I lost my mom,” Lisa said. “I did not want my son to experience the same pain I went through for all of those years. I wanted him to have a mother in high school and cheer him on through college. That is what kept me going, to fight for him.”

But the milestones she gets to see, such as his high school years, graduating and going off to his dream college, keep piling up.

Lisa and her husband, Jeff, with their son at Columbia University. 

Lisa also learned her son does not have the same gene mutation as she does – an instant relief to know he won’t face the same uphill battles associated with cardiomyopathy.

“I’m a pretty positive person, and always have been,” Lisa said in an interview with Live On Nebraska. “That’s what kept me going through the first part of the journey. My family has helped me to stay motivated — I want to be here for them more than anything else right now.”

Her proudest moments, however, come from her work with Donate Life America and the work she’s been able to do to advocate and get the word out about donation and transplantation.

“The stories we were able to share with the community about donation and transplantation and to be able to get the word out there about donation were my proudest moments,” Lisa said.

Lisa’s story also includes the relationship she has made with her donor family. She’s close with them and talks with them regularly.

She wrote them a letter in November 2012 — within a month of transplant — to thank them for her gift of life. Turns out, her donor family had written her as well and their letters crossed in the mail.

Lisa’s donor hero, Mike. 

Lisa can recall the first time she ever received an email from her donor family within the first year of transplant. She was sitting in a TCBY restaurant parking lot.

“I was in instant tears,” Lisa said. “The opportunity to develop the relationship with my donor family has helped them as much as it’s helped me. It’s brought them peace.”

When you sign up to be an organ and tissue donor, you give hope to people just like Lisa. Register to be a donor today.

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