Bloomington, IndianaSeptember is back-to-school for many students across the country. For one Glendale, Arizona, family this back-to-school month will be filled with excitement as their post-transplant daughter returns to her second year of college. Just a few short years ago, this family did not know if their daughter would ever make it to year one of college.
Danielle “DJ” Rodriguez remembers being nervous as she was getting ready to start her junior year of high school. But little did her parents, Danny and April, know about how stressful DJ’s junior year was actually going to be. On the second day of junior year in August of 2011 and after experiencing lower back pain, DJ was taken to the doctor. Within days it was discovered she was in liver failure. The diagnosis? Autoimmune hepatitis. A liver transplant was her only chance at survival.
According to April Rodriguez, “Having our daughter diagnosed with a terminal disease and then learning she needed a liver transplant to survive was devastating. We struggled for the first few months trying to figure out how our life would go on from there. We tried to grasp the reality that schedules would have to change, priorities would have to be reassessed and family life would be disrupted. We soon used up all of our paid time off and faced the reality that significant family income was going to be lost as one parent would be needed for DJ’s continual care and doctors’ visits. Through all of this, we met with DJ’s doctors and the hospital financial representatives. We learned of the astronomical commitment and cost of a transplant and found out that our salaries were not going to begin to cover transplant-related expenses.”
By the last quarter of DJ’s junior year, it was evident that she needed a new liver … and she needed it quickly. The search for a perfect living liver donor match began. Many around her were inspired by DJ’s positive attitude and willingness to fight. The family did experience many setbacks during this process including insurance issues and the inability to locate a liver donor. April’s best friend and DJ’s Godmother volunteered to be tested, and she was the perfect match.
“Hope arrived in the form of a yellow brochure. We were given information about the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) and decided to call. We soon met with the COTA team who guided us through the process of getting our fundraising team in place. We quickly learned we had not just met some helpers, we had met new family. COTA reached out to us before transplant to offer support and guidance. COTA’s staff members were a ray of hope in a fog of confusion. Something as simple as knowing one thing was taken care of, gives such a feeling of comfort. It is almost unexplainable,” remembers April.
On December 6, 2012, DJ entered Phoenix Children’s Hospital wearing her high school homecoming queen crown, while her Godmother entered the Mayo Clinic for a lobe of her liver to be harvested. After nearly 10 hours, April and Danny were told that the transplant was done and DJ was headed to recovery. Her Godmother was also doing well post-surgery. After only 12 days post-transplant, DJ was sent home to recover. Her donor’s recovery was quick as well.
“COTA reached out to us after transplant regarding reimbursements. What a comfort and relief it was to have someone looking out for our family, while we concentrated on DJ. The people we deal with at COTA are compassionate and kind and truly care about our entire family. We learned that with their help and expertise, we could survive this. Hope arrived in the form of a COTA brochure and continues today through the encouragement and support we receive from our COTA family,” said April.
DJ had time to reflect on her entire transplant journey during her year of finishing high school while still recovering from surgery. According to DJ, “After transplant I am finally feeling like a normal teenager with a future, with a life, with a chance to go to college and fulfill my dreams! I am really blessed to have these opportunities. A big part of all this being possible is because of the help that was provided by COTA. Without the help from COTA, I would not be where I am today, or heading towards tomorrow and my future.”
Today, DJ is attending the University of Arizona with high hopes of eventually going to medical school and becoming a pediatric transplant surgeon. According to her mom, “I always knew our little girl would make history … now, with the support of family, friends, doctors and COTA volunteers and staff members, she can go change the world.”
Keep reaching for the stars, DJ!
For more information about the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, or to find a COTA family in your area, please email gro.a1534713312toc@m1534713312ik1534713312.