Jim Dowling of Chino Valley works with Donor Network of Arizona, an organization that raises people's awareness about organ donations and how important it is.
Part of the awareness involves dispelling common myths about donating organs, Dowling said.
Chino Valley resident Jim Dowling sits at home with his son, Jimmy, 15. Dowling said one of the hardest things for him to go through was being away from Jimmy for extended periods of time during his illness.
The myths include everything from people believing the doctors will let them die if they're an organ donor, to their religion forbidding organ donation, to the belief that transplants are experimental and don't really work.
Dowling definitely does not believe the latter myth, since he is the recipient of a liver transplant himself.
"Being an organ recipient carries a lot of weight (with people I talk to), because I wouldn't be here if someone had not been an organ donor," Dowling said.
Although education is a big thing for Donor Network of Arizona, another job of the organization is to match organ transplants to recipients who need them. The group lists recipients nationally, regionally and locally.
Sadly, 70 percent of the people waiting for an organ die before they receive it.
Discovering the illness
Dowling started to discover that things were not working right in April 2000.
"I started getting really ill, to the point where I didn't know what was wrong," Dowling said.
Dowling found out he had an illness called encephalopathy.
"It's really like dementia," Dowling said. "I would almost hallucinate. I would hear voices. I was talking with people that weren't there. I would have conversations with myself that seemed very logical."
Dowling got to the point where he couldn't speak and found himself in the emergency room in a Phoenix hospital about 10 times between April and May of 2000. By the end of May, he could not take care of himself and decided he had to move to California to live with his mother.
Once in California, Dowling went to the Veterans Administration hospital in San Francisco. One of the doctors there diagnosed Dowling with Hepatitis C and end-stage liver disease. She gave Dowling less than one year to live.
Dowling thinks he received hepatitis while he was in the military in the 1970s. Even though Dowling was not a heavy drinker, he still downed a few beers and attended an occasional party, he said.
"I didn't know what I was doing to myself," Dowling admitted.
Dowling takes action
Dowling determined he would not lie down and die and immediately started the process to receive an organ transplant.
"In October was when I was listed," Dowling said.
Between May 2000 and May 2001, Dowling was hospitalized another eight to 10 times. A fluid build-up in his stomach complicated matters.
Finally, in April, Dowling received the news that a liver was available for him, and he flew up to Portland, Ore. for the transplant.
Dowling underwent the liver transplant May 1, but had a longer than anticipated wait at the hospital to receive it.
When Dowling received word about the available liver, he had less than two weeks to live.
"I was at the hospital almost 24 hours just waiting, because the person (donating the organ) was not brain-dead yet," Dowling said. "They put me over there at 8:00 at night and said, 'Okay, we're going to do the surgery at 2:00 in the morning.' Then they came about one and said that it would be at five. Then they came at four and said it was going to be nine…"
Dowling's procedure took 12 hours, although the norm for an organ transplant is six to eight hours. Dowling required 88 pints of blood during the procedure to keep him alive.
When he woke up from his surgery, his sister from Washington and his mother were at his side.
Dowling had to stay at the hospital for six days and stay close to Portland for the next three months.
A son waits, worries
The toughest thing for Dowling to deal with was the fact that his illness kept him away from his 15-year-old son, Jimmy, for a lengthy period of time.
"I had to move away from my 15-year-old son for 18 months," Dowling said. "I'd get to see him every three or four months, when I could afford to fly him over to San Francisco.
"And that was almost worse, because we would see each other and then we didn't know if we would ever see each other again."
Before he received the liver in May, Dowling flew Jimmy up to Portland to see him and let him know that his father was okay.
"When he left, he said, 'You know, Dad, this is the first time in a long time I'm going to say goodbye and know I'm going to see you again," Dowling said, fighting back tears. "That was pretty powerful."
Jimmy was not at the hospital when Dowling woke up at Dowling's insistence. He didn't want Jimmy to see him in that weakened state.
"At first, I wanted him there, but then I changed my mind," Dowling said.
Jimmy was the stimulus Dowling needed to keep going, he admitted.
Dowling moved with Jimmy to Chino Valley three years ago to get away from the big-city woes of Phoenix.
When Dowling came down with the disease, he had to sell his home down in Phoenix, as well as his business, which proved to be both good and bad.
"It was kind of a double-edged sword, because I hated Phoenix," Dowling said with a laugh.
Dealing with death, life
The long wait for Dowling proved to overwhelming, both physically and emotionally.
"I was just in massive depression," Dowling said. "I didn't want to get out of bed, and I was real sick, so I couldn't."
It reached a point where Dowling knew for a fact he couldn't deal with this alone. "I just said, 'You know, I can't do this anymore,' and I just turned it over to God."
Once he took that step, he said, things became so much easier.
"When I talk to people who are waiting, that's the biggest thing I try to convey to them, is that there's nothing you can do. You're totally powerless," Dowling said. "It's a real tough situation to be in."
Even today, Dowling still deals with Hepatitis C. The liver transplant gave him an extension of life, but didn't completely save him.
"I know it's a life-threatening disease, so basically my transplant is a stop-gap measure," Dowling said.
Dowling also works with the American Liver Foundation, which thinks that Hepatitis C may be the next major health epidemic, "if it's not already."
Dowling said he's starting life anew in Chino Valley and not taking anything for granted.
"I don't really try to pack more into a day, but I guess my actions are more deliberate," Dowling said.
For more information about organ donations, call Donor Network of Arizona at 1-800-94 DONOR.
On the web: Donor Network of Arizona: www.dnaz.org.
(Contact Lee Pulaski at email@example.com.)
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