Katja Fort Rhoden knows very well that life is precious. The Howard County, Maryland resident recalls her first spoken words after undergoing a double lung transplant in 2018.

“I said, ‘I love you, Dad,’ Fort Rhoden recalled stating, after her chest tubes were first removed. “My father and I were crying. I kept looking at the (oxygen saturation) monitor to see if I was breathing on my own without the need of oxygen.”

Opening her eyes after enduring the surgical procedure which lasted approximately eight hours, provided a second chance to embrace life and continue her motherhood journey. Today, Fort Rhoden can hike, walk upstairs and even dance.

“I cannot go a day of my life without getting… goose-bumps,” Fort Rhoden said. “If it wasn’t for my transplant, I wouldn’t be here to now take care of my son.”

Since birth, Fort Rhoden’s lungs were abnormal. She experienced frequent lung infections. In the eighties, medical professionals informed her parents that if she survived through puberty, she would probably need a lung transplant. The cause of Fort Rhoden’s health problems was not definitive.

Her son, Gregory, held a connecting piece to unanswered questions. According to information provided by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine online, after a “pediatric pulmonologist Christy Sadreameli ordered a computerized tomography (CT) scan” of the child’s lungs, “unusual abnormalities pointed to a new reality. Both Fort Rhoden and Gregory shared the unidentified lung disease. Sadreameli successfully applied for a grant to study the gene mutation. As a result, “a new Children’s Center clinic to treat and better understand such rare interstitial lung diseases in children” was established at Johns Hopkins. Fort Rhoden’s life-saving transplant could one day lead to answers for other families. Another question is if Gregory could need a lung transplant someday, too.

Katja Fort Rhoden, front, and her son, rear, share a tender mother and son moment.
Photo credit – Emma Sampson

For all these reasons and more, Fort Rhoden remains motivated to educate others about organ donation. She serves as a board member of Donate Life Maryland and Donate Life Ambassador for The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland. Per Donate Life Maryland’s (DLM’s) website, the state-authorized nonprofit organization has been managing the Maryland Donor Registry, which launched in 2009. The donor registry is comprised of Marylanders who are registered to be organ, eye, and tissue donors. 

Additionally, DLM also works collaboratively with The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (LLF) and the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC). The two other “federally designated nonprofit organ procurement organizations” also serve Maryland. LLF’s role as an “organ procurement organization for Maryland,” according to LLF’s website. Facilitating donation and transplantation in area hospitals are other aspects of the role. WRTC serves as the metropolitan Washington, DC, area’s official Donate Life Organization, according to information provided on LinkedIn.

Real people often connect with real stories, when it comes to fully comprehending the impact of organ donation. When people hear pieces of Fort Rhoden’s journey to become a double lung transplant recipient, she represents a human experience.

“My role is to go out into the community and to educate and advocate and kind of dispel myths about organ donation,” Fort Rhoden said.

She reminded that a very traumatic injury usually results for a person to become an organ donor. For example, Adam Corvin’s story is among the heart wrenching profile’s about giving the gift of life. DLM provided a snippet penned by the late 18-year-old’s mother. Corvin reportedly passed away after a fatal motorcycle accident led to his death in 2014.

“He was a giving child from giving money to the needy to helping his niece with her homework. As you can guess he was a mamma’s boy. He was a donor on his license. I was called about donation and told them yes that is what he would want to help those who needed. I am very proud of my son and I miss him dearly. I do know he still lives on in those he donated to,” his mother wrote online.

Fort Rhoden, who is also a biracial, Black American understands that distrust can be tied to the Black communities’ concerns about becoming an organ donor, due to health disparities and the need to rebuild trust with the medical community. Fort Rhoden reminded that ethical standards are in place, when it comes to organ, eye, and tissue donation. Medical transplant teams do not receive notifications about possible organ donation until all life-saving efforts fail.

Katja Fort Rhoden gives the thumbs up on September 29, 2018 after a successful double lung transplant at Inova Fairfax Hospital ICU’s Heart and Vascular Institute. Although oxygen was needed after the surgery to help Fort Rhoden stabilize immediately after the surgery, Fort Rhoden was able to breathe on her own thanks to a life-saving gift from a stranger. Photo credit – Katja Fort Rhoden

The organ donation advocate also offered an underdiscussed perspective. A disproportionate of Black people need transplants.

“And then when you get down to specific transplants like bone marrow, it could become very genetic specific,” Fort Rhoden said.

Register to become a DLM organ, eye and tissue donor via https://register.donatelifemaryland.

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