October 29, 1999

Every day special for VUMC’s first liver recipient

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Julie Damon, and her husband, Bill, now work to promote organ donation awareness. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Every day special for VUMC’s first liver recipient

For Julie Damon, Feb. 23, 1991 is the day she was given a second chance at life.

But for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Nashville medical professionals, it marks an important date in medical history.

Damon was the first liver transplant in middle Tennessee. But that's not important to her. What is important is the example she can be to others.

"I want to make a difference," Damon says. "I use the fact that I was the first liver transplant at Vanderbilt to promote organ donation and the miracles that happen through such gifts.

"One of the most important things I can do in life is give back to others. I can say that if I had not had my transplant at the age of 45, my 46th birthday would have been my funeral."

Damon received her liver only a few months after any initial signs of feeling "run down." It is believed that while Damon was in Spain, during the summer of 1990, she contracted a virus that affected her liver function.

Doctors described her illness as a rapid, mysterious form of hepatitis that led to a liver disorder called fulminating hepatic failure. Soon after returning from her stay in Spain, she began feeling tired. Damon, a Spanish teacher at Franklin High School, attributed her lack of energy to her trip abroad and "doing too much."

After months of feeling haggard, she was admitted to the hospital in January. The news she heard was shocking. She would need a liver transplant. The liver transplant program at Vanderbilt was just getting underway. The Damons had several options — move to another established program or become the first liver transplant at VUMC.

"We all made the decision," Damon recalls. "I'd live and die by Vanderbilt, which was very dear to all of us. My husband taught at Vanderbilt and my two children attended the university.

"When I look back, I realized how fortunate I was. There was definitely a miracle working in my life. Everything was fitting right into place. I was literally dying."

On the eve of her transplant, Damon's family was returning home to meet additional family members when her husband's beeper was activated. They knew then that it was not a death call.

"They still show me the exact spot on the highway when the beeper went off," laughs Damon. "They said they never questioned the reason for the call. They turned around immediately."

The nine-hour surgery required 76 pints of blood and close to 100 medical professionals.

Now nine years later, Damon revels in the pure joy of such seemingly mundane events as waking up in the morning.

"I take it very seriously," she says. "When one person gets a liver, that means that someone else did not get it and is still waiting. I have to be responsible with my organ. I take great care of myself and am happy for each day.

"Life is so beautiful, so precious. Transplants really do change your attitude. Some days are better than others, but they are each special," Damon said.

"I don't know why I was blessed with this chance. But I do know that life is a remarkable blessing. And I intend to spread that message. Organ and blood donation is an unselfish gift."

Vanderbilt's Liver Transplant Program was officially in place after the completion of Damon's surgery on Feb. 23. Since then, Vanderbilt has performed 265 transplants (through Oct. 19).

The program is headed by Dr. C. Wright Pinson, professor of Surgery and surgical director of the Transplant Center.