RAHWAY, NJ – Without the gift of life she received from a complete stranger, city resident Janice McNamara would not be alive and healthy today.
Sunday, McNamara and others on “Team One Love,” including the family of her donor, will honor the person who made this possible by participating in the NJ Sharing Network’s 5th Annual 5K Celebration of Life walk and race in New Providence that hopes to raise $1 million for its cause.
The NJ Sharing Network is a non-profit, federally designated organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue for New Jersey residents in need of life-saving transplants.
This non-profit partners with Donate Life America, a not-for-profit national alliance that drives communities to increase their numbers of registered donors. More importantly, NJ Sharing Network honors those who gave, pays tribute to those who received, offers hope to those who continue to wait and remembers the lives lost while waiting for the “gift of life.”
McNamara said her family, friends and even her donor’s family will be participating in the 5K to honor the woman whose lungs she received in 2013.
More than 8,000 people are expected at the 5K Celebration of Life, many of whom were touched in some way by organ and tissue donation. Transplant recipients, donor families, living donors, those waiting for a transplant, hospital community and corporate sponsors will participate. The theme this year is “To honor. To Remember. To Give Hope.”
Several years ago, McNamara’s health was getting progressively worse. Tied to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day because of a serious lung ailment — made worse by contact with a chemical pesticide — this resident knew her days were numbered because her lungs were slowly being destroyed.
In and out of the hospital that year, McNamara, now 57, knew from talking with her doctors there was little hope for her future unless she received a lung transplant. She also knew time was her enemy when it came to receiving a transplant. The Rahway resident waited two long years, struggling to breathe, hoping a match would come along.
Through it all, her daughter, husband and friends all encouraged and inspired McNamara to keep fighting, but in January 2013, she knew there was very little time left.
Then suddenly late one night she received a call: a transplant was available for her. Soon she was in Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, on her way to surgery and a new lease on life. Not long after that she was in physical therapy, learning to adjust to the new lungs that had given her the new lease on life she so desperately had been fighting for all those long months and years.
“There is no doubt the transplant saved my life,” McNamara said, proud that today she is remarkably well.
But in the back of her mind, she wanted to know the person who cared enough to ensure that upon their death, their lungs would go to someone who would otherwise die without a transplant.
That question would take her on a journey of the heart where she would eventually make contact with the West Orange mother of the woman who not only donated her lungs, but also kidneys, heart, liver and pancreas, saving the lives of five others who would not be alive and well today without these transplants.
Eventually McNamara received a handwritten letter from the mother of her donor, Janice Campbell. The words this mother wrote to her in this letter brought the Rahway resident to tears.
“She was so accepting of me, it made it easy” McNamara recalled.
Eventually the families met, shared photographs, cried and became friends. A few years down the road, they have become like family to one another.
But that is not a surprise, considering that now they share something very special indeed.
McNamara soon learned all about Campbell’s daughter, Dr. Jamila Irons-Johnson, 35, a Hillsborough psychologist whose lungs breathe for her every minute of every day.
Before her death in January 2013 from an aneurysm rupture, Irons-Johnson had focused her career helping children as the supervising psychologist of the Dorothy B. Heirsch Child Protection Center at St. Peter’s University Hospital.
She worked with children, including many who were abused or neglected and her mother said there were times when she even had to testify in court on their behalf.
“She was a very giving person,” Campbell said, recalling she had flashes of “mother intuition” that something was wrong with her daughter before the aneurysm ruptured.
She constantly inquired about her daughter’s health, but the answer was always the same.
“She would say, ‘I’m fine.’ She exercised, didn’t smoke, and seemed very healthy. I felt like I was crazy thinking something was wrong,” the mother recalled, mentioning it was right around this time she changed her own personal directives to include organ donation.
“If I could help someone, I wanted to do that and Jamila and everyone else agreed,” said Campbell.
As a public health nurse, Campbell was impressed with the compassion and care her daughter received, but it soon became evident that her daughter was brain dead and organ donation was immediately discussed.
“My son-in-law said ‘Mom, she would want that, she was a giving person,”’ Campbell said of her daughter’s husband.
Even though McNamara is healthy and back to normal, Campbell said the connection they have goes very deep indeed.
“Janice is one of my best friends now,” the West Orange resident said, and McNamara agreed completely.
“I never had a large family but now I feel like I have this wonderful big family. Every morning I hug my chest and say ‘good morning Jamila,’ thank you so much,” said the Rahway resident.
It is not too late to sign up for the 5th Annual Celebration of Life 5K race. Online registration via email at 5K@njsharingnetwork.org closes tomorrow, Friday June 5. You can also register on the day of the event starting at 7:30 a.m. For more information call 908-514-1761.
You can also continue to make online contributions to favorite teams and team members through July 15.