Note: This story was produced before social distancing measures were put in place.
MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Grace Walker works the floor at Broward Health sprinkling gratitude like sunshine. The RN thanks each person she interacts with, lighting up the room with her smile. Her journey here to the transplant department is remarkable.
“I’ve been here almost 15 years as a registered nurse initially. I worked on the oncology unit as a staff nurse then I got promoted to be an assistant manager,” says Walker.
It’s obvious she loves her job, but it is her role as a survivor that she is most grateful for.
Her illness started in April of 2007. She started to become fatigued, very sleepy, exceptionally tired, lack of appetite, and nauseous.
“As a nurse I started diagnosing myself, I became jaundiced, I came to work one day and I said to a doctor ‘can you look at my eyes, they look kind of yellow’ and she said ‘Grace are you jaundiced? You need to go to E.R.’ And I went to the E.R. and they admitted me immediately when they saw my blood levels. My liver was in complete failure.”
The cause is still a mystery, but it was clear that her only hope was a new liver.
“I had no medical history of diabetes. No one had had liver failure in my family. I was never stuck with a needle to get hepatitis B or hepatitis C. I was never a drug user, so when my liver completely failed it was very daunting. It was very scary to think that I had to wait for someone to pass away in order to save my life.”
Waiting at home, she would get the call, come to the hospital and have her hopes shattered, again and again.
“The first time I came in I got prepped for surgery the liver was too big, the second time it was too fatty, the third time the patient had some infection. Then the 4th time I was prepped for surgery with someone else, and whoever was sicker would receive the liver, and I did not, and I had to go home again.”
Finally, after eight months, she received that greatest gift: a perfect match, a successful liver transplant procedure. But then she suffered complications. Her surgery was fine then she coded and her kidney failed, her heart failed, and she was put on dialysis. She is thankful for the care she received.
“The team here was amazing, there was nothing that went wrong that they did not correct,” said Walker.
Grace spent 40 days in the ICU recovering and overcoming each obstacle. Now as a healthy, strong survivor, she cares for patients in that same unit. Her transplant patients could not be luckier.
“Every time I walk into a patient’s room I think of my donor, I think of the mom, I think of what they are going through, how old he would be now if he would be married if he had children,” she stated.
Dr. Emmanouil Palaios is one of the doctors who performed the transplant procedure and works with her every day.
“Grace always give her best to the patients that’s why the patients love her. She always has been a great patient advocate. What a great inspiration for us, for the whole transplant team to see a patient who was so sick, to help so many patients every day. That is a true blessing.”
Paying it forward, Grace’s mission expands beyond the hospital, volunteering for organ donor awareness, telling her story everywhere she can.
“My mission is to inspire others and to educate about the need for organ donors. One organ donor can save eight lives,’ she stated. And staying healthy is key to her advocacy.
She’s run several 5K races.
“I have to stay healthy because I have a mission to be an example for other patients and to give hope and inspiration that you don’t stay home and in a bed after you have a transplant.”
She does have one more wish, to one day meet and thank the family of her donor.
“I am so grateful every day, every day I get up and I look in the mirror and I thank my donor for being so selfless.”
According to Donate Life there are 113,000 people waiting for a lifesaving transplant. Visit the Donate Life website for more information on organ donation.