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The Ultimate Gifts: Giving & Receiving Organs

Giving and receiving organs offers a second chance at life.

Story by Amy Coyne Bredeson

As is tradition during the holidays, many of us spend a lot of time and money finding the perfect gifts for our loved ones. But sometimes the perfect gift cannot be bought in a store or online. It isn’t wrapped in a pretty package with a big red bow on top. It might not even come from a friend or relative.

Some people just want to keep on living.

To Give: Suzi Oliver, kidney donor

When Suzi Oliver came across a Facebook post about a woman who needed a kidney, she stepped up and offered the ultimate gift — one of her own kidneys.

“She needs a kidney, and I’ve got one to give,” the Bluffton woman said.

Oliver had never met the woman in need of a kidney, but as it turned out, she was the niece of a friend of hers. She’s been on dialysis for three years and on the waiting list for a kidney for four years.

“Something just struck me,” Oliver said. “My son, my eldest child, is 23. And this girl was 25. She just turned 26 in September. And I’m thinking, ‘My God, this could be my kid that needs a kidney.’”

In August, Oliver reached out to the woman and then contacted her transplant coordinator. She started the process of being tested right away. She traveled a few times to Atlanta for tests.

In the beginning of November, she was approved. She could donate a kidney to the young woman who needed it.

The 52-year-old wife, nurse and mother of two spends her free time volunteering with various organizations, including the Rotary Club of the Lowcountry, Wreaths Across America Beaufort, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Patriot Guard Riders – yes, she rides a Harley-Davidson.

Oliver has worked for Hospice for 25 years, and volunteered there for 10 years prior. She was an oncology nurse before that.

Now Oliver works for Island Hospice in Hardeeville and is a private nurse for United Energy Workers Healthcare.

Oliver is not scared one bit about the upcoming surgery, which will be done laparoscopically at Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta. She is expected to be out of the hospital within a day or two, and back to work in four to six weeks.

“It’s a small amount of time out of my life to give this girl quality of life and get her off dialysis,” Oliver said.

After the surgery, she won’t be riding her Harley anymore, but Oliver said it’s worth the sacrifice to be able to make life better for someone else.

To Receive: Vernelle Dickerson, heart recipient

Had it not been for another kind soul, Vernelle Dickerson would not be alive today.

In 2003, the Huger woman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In 2004, she went into congestive heart failure. Her mitral valve had been damaged by the chemotherapy. She had the valve replaced, then was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.

Dickerson was told she would need a heart transplant, but she had to be cancer free for five years before that could happen. As time went on, her heart condition worsened. She had a heart attack in 2010.

In May 2011, Dickerson became very ill, and after spending two nights at Roper Hospital in Charleston, she was transferred to the Medical University of South Carolina. By that point, her heart was beating so slowly that she had to be hooked up to a balloon pump to stay alive.

On June 19, 2011, Dickerson received a heart transplant and a new lease on life. Her health hasn’t been perfect since the transplant. She’s had a few setbacks along the way.

“But I am a person of strong faith and hope,” Dickerson said. “My mom – she is deceased now – but she always encouraged me to just keep the faith and believe. … No matter what goes on, I never have ever given up.”

Like Oliver, Dickerson worked in the healthcare industry for many years and spends her free time giving back to the community. She has volunteered with the Philip Simmons Foundation for more than 15 years. She also volunteers at the Charleston Gaillard Center and at Dock Street Theatre, just to name a few.

Dickerson had to take a break from it all when she became ill. Now at age 66, she is, in her own words, “back full force.” She now works at the front desk at Charleston Harbour Resort and Marina. She volunteers with Donate Life America and is an ambassador for the American Heart Association.

Although she never met the 50-year-old woman whose heart now beats in her chest, Dickerson knows she was a good person.

She would like to encourage others to become organ donors.

“In the event you die, that organ, that part of you, is still here,” Dickerson said. “You are helping, you are blessing someone else to live, and a part of you continues to live.”

Southern Coast Heart Ball

When: 6-10 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019

Where: The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa

Details: The Heart Ball of the Southern Coast, attended by more than 500 individuals from Hilton Head and Savannah’s business, medical and social communities, is the annual black-tie gala benefiting the American Heart Association’s lifesaving mission. The evening’s festivities begin with a pre-event reception that includes an amazing silent auction followed by an elegant dinner, inspiring program, a spectacular live auction and incredible entertainment.

More information: Sponsorship/tickets (Carla Raines, 843-540-6338, [email protected]), payments (Madison Lamb, 843-480-4904, [email protected]), volunteers (Emily Whitesell, 843-480-4910, [email protected])