A Transplanted Purpose

By John Reecer

One by one, each student nervously walked up to the principal of Monroe County High School to receive their high school diploma. Their hearts and minds were full of countless emotions as their adult lives stretched out before them.

However, different thoughts and emotions were running through the mind of young Amelia Wilson. On the outside, her classmates saw a girl with great potential who was a cheerleader and a member of almost every organization in school. She was on her way to get her college education at the University of Kentucky.

As one of the top students of the class of 2000 at MCHS, she was fortunate enough to give one of the speeches at graduation.

However, on the inside Amelia saw a much more uncertain future for herself as she was in great emotional and physical pain.

“OK, God,” she thought to herself as she waited to graduate. “If you will let me go one year at UK I will tell somebody I don’t feel well. Let me be normal for just one more year.”

Amelia had gone through most of her high school life secretly knowing something was terribly wrong with her health. But she had no idea that the biggest fight of her life would begin in just a matter of months.

In high school she would wear sweatshirts to cover up any signs of whatever was wrong with her. Despite her efforts to keep this secret away from the public eye, her health dipped too much, and it was time for the truth to come forward.

At the age of 19 years old, Amelia was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver just one week before she arrived at the University of Kentucky. She couldn’t keep her sickness a secret anymore as her stomach was swelling and her skin was turning yellow because her body could not filter out the toxins in her body.

“Looking back on it now, I probably should’ve told somebody quicker or sooner,” she now says with a hint of regret in her voice. “But when you are 17 or 18 all you want to do is be normal and do what everyone else is doing.”

She knew deep down she needed medical attention, but she was willing to wait as long as she could so that she could remain just like everyone else for as long as possible.

About a week before she began college, her health reached a new low and she had to be checked into a hospital. It was time for the doctors to find out what was wrong with Amelia.

After her biopsy revealed her liver disease, she eventually started school at UK despite starting a bit later than her fellow classmates did because she was still in the hospital having tests done. She was still eager to start school, but her doctor did not share that same excitement.

“Oh Amelia, I don’t think you are going to be able to do that,” her doctor said when she asked to start school that fall. “The medicine we are going to put you on is going to make you so very sick.”

This advice did not matter to her as she begged him to start school as soon as she could. Wilson knew she could handle any amount pain that would come her way, because she truly believed that God had given her determination to power through anything.

Eventually, Wilson moved into her dorm with the help of her parents Sarah and Bill Brown in the fall of that year. They were forced to leave their child alone and bedridden in a college dorm.

“It was so hard on all of us,” Sarah Brown said. “Before we left her she was lying in bed and she was so sick. I was about as low as you can get as a mother. When we would get up there on weekends we would take her to eat and do her laundry so that she wouldn’t have too much to do. She would just barely be crawling when she came in from class. It was hard on me and Bill. It just broke our heart whenever we drove off and left her.”

Amelia Wilson and her parents Sarah and Bill. Photo provided by Amelia’s family.

At UK she would find herself involved in everything just like she was in highs school so she could keep her mind off of her illness. She managed to be in a sorority and student government, travel with the athletic department, and even travel with the president to help recruit students.

“I really tried hard and I think that’s what kept my mind off of it,” Amelia said with confidence. “You can sit around and mope and cry and worry all day, but I thought it was better to keep on going and keep on fighting.”

The situation would take an unfortunate turn during Christmas break of that year as Amelia got very sick. She was placed at a hospital at UK where the doctors told her that she only had a year to live.

After that point, she was told that she needed to be put on a transplant list for a new liver. The family would then go to a hospital in Pittsburgh where they would be disappointed to find a very long list of names ahead of young Amelia.

Today, there are over 188,000 people waiting on this transplant list. This number was similar back in 2000 and it was made worse because doctors wanted Amelia to have a complete, healthy liver.

It was time to play the waiting game as all she could do was go back to UK and enjoy her college career as much as she could – and that’s exactly what she did. She would keep her phone with her 24/7 as she eagerly awaited the call that could change her entire life.

In the meantime she would meet her husband Allen Wilson in 2002. They met at a UK student ambassador’s retreat where Allen found himself captivated by Amelia’s personality.

“She was incredibly organized, incredibly articulate, and just did amazing things,” Allen said. “She never takes no for an answer. She just always finds a way and that really impressed me from the moment I got to meet her.”

During her college years she also developed a close relationship with the UK Basketball team. Former Head Coach Tubby Smith was a big advocate for organ donation. Wilson also developed a friendship with star basketball players Patrick Sparks and Tayshaun Prince.

“It was so funny because we always ate breakfast together,” Amelia said smiling as she reminisced on her younger years. “It made me feel good that people really cared about my situation.”

She would go on to spearhead campus events about organ donations on campus. If there was a UK basketball game she would be there in Rupp Arena handing out pamphlets about organ donation and the night before tickets would go on sale to students for football games, she would be there at the line handing out cups of hot chocolate, offering brochures and talking about organ donation.

She organized a challenge between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville to register the highest amount of organ donors within a 10-day span. A trophy naming the winning school is presented to the President of the winning college at the annual UK-Louisville college basketball game in December. This event has now been going on for 16 years.

“Amelia was desperate to spread information about organ donation,” Charlotte Long of the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) said. “She was probably one of the first people who understood the importance of getting people to talk about organ donation. Those people who were indicating their wishes to be an organ donor were the only source of hope she had. What she needed was an organ transplant. She would not ask anyone else if she was not capable of doing it herself. “

At UK she was awarded the title of Homecoming Queen. When asked to recall what happened that day, Amelia couldn’t help but to laugh at how astounded she was to be a top candidate.

“When they announced the top three candidates I was so surprised I had made it that far so I kind of wanted to win at that point,” Amelia said. “I remember my family was all there and mom didn’t want me to get my hopes up. She told me how pretty I looked and how much of an honor it was that I had made it this far. When they called my name, I was just completely shocked.  It was so exciting and something that you will never forget.”

She would graduate from UK a semester early because she felt her time was limited: she wanted to graduate college before she died. Despite her amazing college experience, she was still waiting for a transplant and she was reaching the end of her battle so she tried her best to speed everything up.

What she did not realize, however, was that fate was finally about to step in for a positive change

The Lexington Herald-Leader wrote a story about Amelia’s accomplishments and how she needed a transplant. This caught the attention of the University of Kentucky Hospital. They wanted to meet with Wilson before she did anything too hasty at the hospital at Pittsburgh. The doctors at UK wanted her to move to Lexington.

A decision like this was a major one as the hospital in Pittsburgh wanted her to stay there. However, Amelia was motivated by what she says was a feeling given to her by God to go to UK’s hospital.

“I remember when I was 22 years old having this feeling that I couldn’t really explain, but this feeling that God just told me to go to UK to be put on their transplant list,” Amelia said. “I knew it was what I was supposed to do.”

She would be double listed for six months, which is when she met Long and developed a friendly relationship with her. Long is in charge of Community Outreach and Public Education for Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates. Like Amelia, she educates people on the benefits of the different kinds of organ donation. She knew that Wilson would be enduring quite a battle if she was lucky enough to receive a new liver as this organ is one of the most difficult to treat and recover from.

“The liver is the largest blood filtering unit in your body,” Long said. “It does about 60 jobs and breaks down impurities in the blood. A typical liver transplant can take anywhere from 13 hours to 20 hours because every single blood vessel and veins have to be sutured perfectly so the patient does not bleed to death. Patients must also go through a much longer and painful recovery because this patient is going to have to learn how to walk and stand up again. Gravity is going to pull on all those sutures so much.”

Amelia would continue to hope and pray for a new liver to become available. Her sister Keri Jo Eaton was able to recall what she says was a special moment in Amelia’s life during this time.

“Before she had her transplant we had a business meeting one Saturday morning at Maple Grove Church and everybody gathered around her and prayed,” Eaton said. “We had been praying for a miracle to happen.”

Finally, a few weeks after the church meeting in April of 2005,  Amelia’s family received that one fateful phone call after four and a half years of waiting.

A 13-year-old boy named John Cody Conley in West Virginia died in a four-wheeler accident. All of his organs were supposed to go to Pittsburgh where Amelia was previously at, but that hospital was full and his organs went to UK’s hospital for Amelia. The transplant was successful and she finally got her new liver.

Young John Cody Conley, whose liver Amelia received as a transplant. Photo provided by Amelia’s family.

As if she couldn’t have gotten any luckier, Amelia’s doctor told her that if it had been one more week she would have died.

“What’s so sad is that there is such a shortage of organs right now that you have to be sick enough to be the sickest on the list, but well enough to survive it,” Amelia said. “That’s kind of a fine line for people. I tell people all the time that the important thing is to talk to your family about organ donation.”

Her family has seen both sides of organ donation. When her father died a few years ago his corneas were able to be donated to a little 5-year-old girl in Louisville.

Sadly enough, Amelia’s story took yet another turn when in January 2017 she received the news that her old battle was back for her once again. Her disease was back in her new liver. The exhaustive journey she already fought would have to be fought again, and she was put back on the transplant list.

Today, Amelia is 35 years old and works as a field representative for Kentucky Congressman James Comer, who she previously worked for in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

She covers 12 counties in Kentucky which causes her to travel a lot. She is on the road almost every day which keeps her mind off of the disease which continues to plague her to this day.

Her job keeps her very busy and her mind off her illness, but it’s her faith which Amelia says keeps her motivated.

“The only thing you have is prayer and hope that God will see you through,” she said. “I think of a lot of people who just kind of gave up. They didn’t fight for it. For me I just feel like God gave me the wanting to do the best that I could do.”

Despite Amelia’s faith, her sister Keri Jo says that there are still times where her ongoing fight will take its toll.

“She won’t let you know if she is real down sometimes,” Eaton said. “She puts up a good front. She tries to be real strong and she tries to have a positive outlook on it. She tries to keep going at one hundred percent even when she can’t. She is always very upbeat in front of everybody. But sometimes with family she can have her moments.”

Until she receives her next transplant, Amelia continues to stress the importance of organ donation as she says her purpose in life is to help others learn about what saved her life. It’s through this purpose that Amelia strives to live that normal life she had always wanted.

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