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Key resident gives thanks for gift of life

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 24, 2009
  • Longboat Key
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The call that changed Charlotte Jensen’s life came six months ago.

It was a quiet evening Friday, May 22. Jensen, now 70, and her husband, Bob, had played cards in their Gulfshore of Longboat Key home earlier. Bob Jensen was in bed when the phone rang at 10:50 p.m. Jensen answered the phone.

“This is Mark from LifeLink,” the caller said.

Jensen started screaming.

“Bob, get out of bed, get out of bed,” she said.

For weeks, her cell phone had been fully charged 24 hours a day so that she could take this call. Her bags were packed. She knew why Mark from LifeLink was calling: The organ-and-tissue recovery organization had a kidney for her. She told Mark that she could be at Tampa General Hospital in an hour.

She called her friend, Judy Hale, who drove the Jensens to the hospital. Jensen was too excited to drive.

Diagnosed at 12 with glomerulonephritis, a progressive renal disease that makes the kidneys unable to filter toxins, which she might have developed from viral pneumonia, she missed sixth through 10th grades in school as the result of her illness. As an adult, she slept up to 12 hours a day and had to follow a strict diet, avoiding sodas, legumes and dairy products. She spent most of her time at home.

Earlier this year, Jensen’s son, Allen Bailey, had flown down from Portsmouth, N.H., when preliminary tests showed that he would be a compatible donor. He bawled inconsolably after further testing showed that he wasn’t a match.

“That devastated us,” Jensen said. “That was a very dark day.”

Jensen then underwent extensive medical testing to get on the transplant list to show that she didn’t have other major health issues.

When she arrived at Tampa General Hospital for the transplant, there were additional blood tests.

By 11 a.m. May 23, she was ready for surgery. She said a “Hail Mary” to herself. She shook from head to toe as hospital personnel wheeled her to the operating room.

“I said, ‘I’m not frightened. I’m so excited. I want to do this!’” Jensen said.

The typical kidney transplant takes three to five hours; Jensen’s was completed in two-and-a-half. By the next day, she was up walking. She spent one week in the hospital. She felt the improvement to her health almost instantaneously.

For the first time since she was a child, Jensen now has normal sleeping habits. She’s often up by 7:30 a.m. Her neighbors at Gulfshore are still surprised when they see her on a mid-morning walk. She no longer has to follow a strict diet, although she remains health conscious. She carries a facemask with her that she puts on if she hears so much as a sniffle.

She used to say, “I’m fine,” when someone asked her how she was doing.

Today, she answers, “I’m great!”

In the midst of her joy, Jensen remembers her donor, a 40-year-old man who died in a motorcycle accident.

On two occasions since the transplant, she has become so overcome with grief for the donor that she couldn’t stop crying. In August, she wrote a letter to his family to thank them for his gift.

Jensen says she will have extra reason to give thanks this Thanksgiving, which comes three days after the six-month anniversary of her transplant surgery.

For Jensen, one irony about the transplant is that she will not be able to donate her organs because of the immunosuppressant drugs she has received. So, she hopes to do some sort of work in the future to spread awareness about organ donation, although, for now, she has to avoid large crowds.

Already, she has started on a small scale. Since her transplant, two of her friends have registered to become organ donors.


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