Few appreciate the sweetness of life as those who have stepped on death's doorstep while waiting for an organ transplant, then get one, and not only survive but thrive.
And it's a joy that seems lasting, whether it is Vernelle Dickerson, who received a heart 18 months ago; Sharon Kearns, who got a liver five years ago; or Phil Borden, who has been living with another person's heart inside his chest for two decades.
“Every morning when I brush my teeth, I look in the mirror and say, 'You're still here. This is amazing,' ” says Borden, who is a Vietnam War veteran. “I'm still surprised to be here and thank God every day. Absolutely.”
Besides their common experiences, all three show their gratitude to the families of organ donors and to organ procurement efforts by coming together for the annual Gift of Life 5K run and 2K walk, the largest awareness and fundraising event for LifePoint in the Lowcountry.
The eighth annual event will be at 9 a.m. Saturday at James Island County Park.
1993 | Phil Borden
Borden, 64, of James Island recalls that he was resolved to die 20 years ago when cardiomyopathy, a deterioration of the heart muscle, had become so severe that he couldn't even muster up strength to brush his teeth. His body withered to a mere 128 pounds.
Doctors told him that his only hope of surviving was a heart transplant, which Borden initially rejected as “being too Frankenstein” but later accepted as “cooperating with a science experiment.” A heart became available, and his last words to the surgeon before the surgery were “good luck.”
“When I woke up from the surgery, I was frankly shocked to be alive,” Borden says.
His new lease on life allowed him to work for Ness Motley researching documents on the landmark tobacco settlement in the mid-1990s and to enjoy two decades of life with his wife, who tragically died at 55 following a fall last summer
Regardless, Borden says the most important lesson he learned from the experience is “to love everyone all the time.”
2008 | Sharon Kearns
Likewise, Kearns, who is the director of testing at Trident Technical College, was on the brink of dying from primary biliary cirrhosis and liver cancer when she received a liver transplant on March 8, 2008.
“I was a scrawny, yellow thing ... and I was freezing all the time,” says Kearns of her condition prior to getting a liver from a 57-year-old anonymous donor.
Within 24 hours of getting the liver, Kearns says the yellow in her eyes started to fade. Weeks later, the yellow in her skin faded and she stopped having the freezing sensation.
“It was a miracle,” says Kearns who turned 56 on Feb. 11. “People complain about getting older and getting wrinkles. I don't. The experience totally changed me as a person.”
2011 | Vernelle Dickerson
The decade following Vernelle Dickerson's 50th birthday was tough.
Diagnosed with leukemia in 2003, aggressive treatments that cured her cancer damaged her heart, leading to cardiomyopathy and eventually a heart attack in 2009. She went from 150 pounds to 74.
“I couldn't walk from my bedroom to the kitchen without being out of breath,” Dickerson says.
Like Borden and Kearns, her condition worsened, and by spring of 2011, her only hope for living was a heart transplant. She endured a month of tests for an investigative report to see if she was capable of even accepting a new heart, was listed in early June and on Father's Day, the heart of a 50-year-old female became available.
“When I heard a heart was available, I just cried and cried. I was so excited,” she recalls, adding that she could not have survived without faith in God and the support and prayers of her family.
The experience — and prospects for a healthier, happier decade in her 60s (she celebrated her 60th in December) — has changed her.
“Life is very different. You don't take things for granted. I've learned not to get anxious, stressed out or upset.”
Gift of Life
Saturday will be Dickerson's first Gift of Life event, while Kearns and Borden have been regulars.
Mark Johnson, spokesman for LifePoint, says the race and walk event is special because of the participation of transplant recipients and donor families.
“The LifePoint Gift of Life 5K/2K Run Walk is our biggest event in the Lowcountry. It not only helps raise awareness about donation organs, eyes and tissues, but also is a key fundraiser for LifePoint to help in our statewide outreach efforts,” says Johnson.
Johnson says the race has continued to steadily grow each year, including 400 registering last year.
Phil Borden, who received a life-saving heart transplant 20 years ago, dotes on his Corgi in the backyard of his James Island home. Borden is a victim advocate for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.×
Vernelle Dickerson, who received a heart transplant on Father’s Day 2011, recently participated in the Go Red! Heart Run.×