Jennifer Alley had her intestinal transplant in July of 2004. In 2008 she gave birth to her son, Felton. “I was the first adult small bowel recipient to give birth,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer Alley’s transplant journey began with a diagnosis of myopathic obstruction. What that meant, as Jennifer explains, is that she had no gastrointestinal motility. “Anything I drank or ate just sat in my stomach.” With her digestive system unable to move food and absorb nutrients, Jennifer had to rely entirely on parenteral nutrition – a type of long-term nutritional therapy in which nutrients are introduced intravenously.
But parenteral nutrition is not without complications, including the possibility of developing liver disease. “My liver was starting to have some damage,” Jennifer explains. “Thankfully we didn’t have to get a liver yet and we were able to get the transplant in time.”
Jennifer received her transplant in July 2004. We often refer to transplantation as “a second chance at life” and in Jennifer’s case her second chance at life was also the chance to welcome a new life into her family! In 2008 Jennifer gave birth to her son, Felton, and became the first adult small bowel recipient to give birth post-transplant. Her transplant surgeon was there for the delivery.
“I had my son at the same hospital where I had my transplant,” Jennifer says. “Because if there was anything that had to be done, or if I had to have a cesarean, my surgeon wanted to be there and be the one to open.”
Jennifer was induced and 36 hours later she welcomed her son into the world.
“His name is Felton, which is in honor of my husband and my husband’s grandfather, but his middle name is Steven after my donor. I’ve been blessed to know my donor’s family and I asked their permission and Steven’s dad said yes. And he even joked that if I ended up having a girl, he’d forgive me,” she adds with a laugh.
Like many transplant recipients, Jennifer is grateful for her donor and donor’s family, while also being acutely aware of their loss that made her renewed life and her son’s life possible.
“I would not be here without Steven, and neither would my son, so I knew I had to have his name in there.”
Jennifer’s transplant surgery was in Pittsburgh, but after her surgeon relocated to the Cleveland Clinic, Jennifer began to travel to Cleveland from her home near Atlanta, Georgia for regular follow-up appointments. Her first stay at Transplant House was for three nights in 2016. Since then, she has stayed here for an additional 116 nights, including a visit of over two months in 2021.
“Transplant House is just incredible. You all make us feel so welcome. The meals that people donate are helpful – and not just financially. It is also great to not have to worry about getting a meal together in the evening.”
Jennifer is also thankful that Transplant House can be a home away from home for her husband Daniel while she is in the hospital. The community and fellowship he’s found here with other guests is, in Jennifer’s words, “a big deal” to them both. It is significant for Daniel because it gives him a caring group of fellow travelers on the transplant journey with whom he can share his experiences. And for Jennifer, she is bolstered by knowing that while she is in the hospital her husband is surrounded by others who will listen and understand what he is going through.
“Daniel would come back to the hospital and say ‘I got to talk to this person’s husband and their wife is going through what you are right now. And it felt good to connect with them.’ It’s a major support network.”
The connections between caregivers made possible at Transplant House is something that Jennifer, even as a patient, values. There are certain things that only those who are on the transplant journey understand about the process and about what someone feels as a caregiver or as a patient. She calls it a “heart community.”
“It means so much to him that the other guests actually understood how he was feeling and what he was going through,” Jennifer says. “You can talk with people here and they know exactly what it’s like, they’ve been there too. It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
There are other ways Jennifer feels supported at Transplant House. Her most recent stay was over Mother’s Day weekend and Jennifer was missing her son. It was her second time being away from home for the holiday and it was also her 40th birthday. Jennifer singles out the card from staff wishing her a happy birthday and the flowers delivered to all our apartments that weekend – donated by Big Hearted Blooms – as emblematic of the many “little things” that Transplant House does for guests that have a big impact.
“It was so sweet and made my day. All that you do – those little things matter to guests.”
And Jennifer is especially fond of Benson. For someone who has always had animals in her life, having Benson here at the House is a big source of joy and calm.
“He just cheers you up. We have animals at home and being away from them is one of the hardest things to do,” she says. “You don’t even have to say anything to Benson, he just knows and comes up to you and that does so much.”
Speaking with Jennifer, it is easy to see that for her and for Daniel Transplant House has become like a second home, a place where they feel surrounded by a welcoming community of guests and staff who understand the highs and lows, the challenges, and the complexity of emotion that come with the transplant journey.
For those just beginning their own transplant journey, Jennifer has words of encouragement.
“When you first start on the road to transplant you may feel very overwhelmed,” Jennifer says. “And it is a long process, but my thing is to know that not every day is a hard day. You will have hard days definitely, but then there are the good days too. Transplant is not a cure, but it’s a better quality of life. It’s management of your life, but it’s going to be better than what you went through before.”