During a two-day surgery in May of 2022, Donna Plummer received her liver transplant. Of those days and the weeks of recovery in the ICU that followed, Donna admits she remembers very little.
“I was just surviving,” she says. “It’s come out pretty well I think, but there were some struggles. But we had a lot of nurses that were supportive. And this man here,” Donna pats Thomas, her husband of 48 years, on the leg, “stayed with me all day long.”
The Plummer’s journey to transplant begins in their hometown near Defiance, Ohio about 50 miles southwest of Toledo. Because the medical facilities in their area do not perform transplants, the Plummers knew they would have to travel for medical care to either Columbus or to Cleveland. Their doctor in Toledo, a liver specialist, suggested that they go to University Hospitals in Cleveland.
On August 12, 2021 the Plummers made their first trip to UH to be evaluated for a liver transplant. It was almost another 9 months until Donna received her new liver. However, during those months of waiting a lot happened. As Donna says, “it was a rough road.”
Remembering the months between that initial evaluation and their return to University Hospitals for Donna’s new liver, Thomas says that there were moments where “we didn’t think she was going to make it.”
The scariest of these moments for the family was in December. Donna contracted COVID only a few days after receiving her booster shot. Her condition was serious enough that one of Thomas and Donna’s sons, Tommy, decided that he had better call the family together – including family members from out of state – to see Donna and take a family photograph with her. They were preparing to say goodbye.
Thankfully, Donna pulled through. On April 22, she and Thomas came back to Cleveland for Donna’s transplant surgery. However, Donna had a low sodium condition that, unless it responded to treatment, would prevent her from receiving a new liver.
“But they brought it up and low and behold she’s got a liver,” Thomas says.
During the weeks after her transplant Donna was still – as she says – in survival mode.
“Those first two or three weeks I just couldn’t remember a lot of stuff. But Thomas was there and I was in survival mode because there was more than I thought I would have to fight through when coming out of surgery,” Donna explains. “I couldn’t drink water for a while. I’ve still got a feeder tube and I’ve got this tracheotomy tube here which I’m hoping will come out soon because I’m really not using it for breathing. And then I have a little box in here because my lungs are not synchronized.”
Donna pauses for a moment.
“It was scary,” she says, but she also remembers her husband and her family encouraging her from her bedside in the ICU. “It’s amazing. The support that we’ve had – I don’t know if other people do. I know there was a lady in surgery the one time I went down for something, and she said to the nurse, ‘My girls are all out west and don’t bother them.’ And I thought, what if she’s under and they have to make a decision? I’m grateful I have my family.”
Donna and Thomas are grateful for their Church, too. Harvest Fellowship Church has covered every penny of their stay in Cleveland.
“I said to our pastor that we could pay some down and he said ‘Donna, we’re a church of givers not receivers.’”
And there are other sources of support too. There’s the prayer group of women from Donna and Thomas’s 50th high school reunion who sent them steaks from Omaha and, when they learned the Plummers didn’t have a way to cook them, sent a grill too. They frequently receive cards from people back home and Tommy and his wife are part of a prayer group that keep the Plummers in their prayers.
The overall impression one has when speaking to Donna and Thomas is of gratitude – for those supporting them back home and for the doctors, nurses, and staff members at University Hospitals. According to Donna, the hospital staff made sure to care for them both. Donna is especially grateful for all that they did for Thomas while he was spending nights in the hospital with her. They brought him a more comfortable lounge chair, made sure he had meals, brought him coffee – a favorite of Thomas’s – and brought him blankets when he was cold.
“We appreciate everything they do” Donna says. “We really do.”
And the Plummers also made a point of getting to know them – from the doctors and nurses to those who came in to deliver meals and collect the trash. For Donna and Thomas, learning more about the staff they met at the hospital as people was a special part of their experience. And it made them feel more comfortable to speak with staff members about Donna’s care.
“We weren’t afraid to ask questions and that was really good.”
Donna joined Thomas at Transplant House a little over two weeks ago and started meeting guests at the weekly dinners, Tuesday breakfasts, and around campus. These moments of fellowship have quickly become a cherished part of their time in Cleveland.
“We sit out on the front porch and say hi to everybody. Talking to the other people at the meals and the stories you hear at Transplant House helps you with what you’re going through,” she says.
For Donna and Thomas, meeting other guests also made them realize how different each transplant patient’s and caregiver’s experience can be. While they share in the same larger journey to transplant, each patient’s path and their challenges along that road are different.
Donna and Thomas are also thankful for the meals they have shared at Transplant House (Thomas in particular singles out a bean and ham stew made by Cleveland Cooking Club as a favorite) and the relief that staying in an apartment that feels like a home rather than a hotel brings. Donna says she was able to sleep comfortably starting on her first night at the House, in part because she felt cared for by the staff and volunteers here.
“It’s a very caring group. The apartments are nice and clean and well kept up and that makes a difference,” Donna says.
“And its within walking distance to the hospital,” Thomas adds.
That closeness to the hospital not only saves money on parking, but also provides guests like Thomas and Donna with peace of mind. Donna’s care team is only a block away and having a very short trip from the hospital to her new home away from home at Transplant House after being discharged was a relief. With every bump and jolt in the car causing discomfort, Donna says that having a short car ride to and from the hospital has made her regular appointments every Monday and Thursday easier.
The Plummers also like how close Transplant House is to other necessities – groceries, gas stations – but are glad, too, that so much of what is needed to create a feeling of being at home is already here for them, or just a quick request to a staff member away.
“A couple of times there were things we needed so we told the staff, and they provided them,” Thomas says. “But the apartments also have the kind of stuff that you don’t think about needing until you realize you’re missing them: a shower chair in the bathroom, utensils in the kitchen, and all the cleaning goods and toilet tissue and laundry supplies you need. You don’t have to worry about going out and buying anything like that.”
And the Plummers have, like so many of our guests, come to appreciate the local wildlife – the deer who on occasion pass through the parking lot and the Cozad-Bates House lawn, or the rabbits and chipmunks that make their home beneath the large hydrangea bushes along the front of Building 1. The rabbits’ lack of shyness – often a surprise to guests – is something Thomas noticed right away: “You can walk almost right on top of them and that’s when they decide they’re finally going to move.”
“I like the front porch that we’ve got – it’s a nice, quiet place and you feel comfortable there,” Donna adds.
The Plummers left for home in early August grateful for the community they have made at Transplant House.
“It’s been a real experience besides just healing,” Donna says.