Each day across the country 22 patients die waiting for transplant organs to become available. And every 10 minutes someone is added to the national organ transplant waiting list, according to the organ and tissue donation center Gift of Life Michigan.
In Michigan alone, about 3,000 people are waiting for organs. So how did longtime Kalamazoo resident, actress, and director Cathie Weir, who underwent a double lung transplant in 2008, receive a donation just three months after getting on the waiting list?
“I think it was an angel, I really do,” the 68-year-old Weir says. “The donor has to match all these different components, so it was a miracle.”
If words like “miracle” and “angel” make some people squirm, consider a dream Weir had three months before her surgery. She had just gotten on the donor list and was afraid, at age 56, that she had only three more years until she met the fate of her father, who died at 59. Then he appeared in a dream and said, “I’ll see you later.”
Weir has written a book called I’ll See You Later, about her battles with emphysema, her life-saving surgery, and her own father’s death from emphysema-related complications 36 years earlier. In the book, Weir writes that her father’s parting salutation to family members had always been, “I’ll be seeing you.” When she heard that final word — “later” — in her dream, she knew everything was going to be OK. “‘Later,’ he said, as in ‘not now — you’ve got more time,’” Weir explains.
From volunteer to director
A former executive assistant and public relations representative for the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, Weir has been associated with the Civic on and off for the past 40 years.
Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Weir moved back to Kalamazoo from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where her husband, Rich, had worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in air traffic control. When they returned to Kalamazoo, Weir was “going nuts.” Her daughter, Susan, was in school all day, and Rich worked full time.
Weir saw an ad in the Kalamazoo Gazette for volunteers at the Civic and went to the theater to apply. There she met Jim Carver, then the managing director of the Civic, who became a lifelong friend. But first he cast her in a small part. Gradually, she started taking larger roles and in 1986 started working as Carver’s assistant.
She recalls that Lady House Blues, set in the early 20th century, was her second play as an actress. “The character I played had tuberculosis and had just come back from one of the sanatoriums. I had to research the conditions in sanatoriums to give those layers of the character.”
Tuberculosis is a lung disease. So is emphysema. “It just dawned on me,” she says during the interview.
One day in 1990, when a director backed out of a production, Carver tossed a script onto Weir’s desk and said, “You’re directing this.” They had talked about the possibility before, but Weir kept insisting she wasn’t ready. Now, Carver said, you are.
“It was an easy show,” Weir recalls with relief. “It was only three women.”
Weir went on directing, acting and working at the Civic for 27 more years, relishing her second family at the theater. “I love the Civic,” she says. “Every time I go, I get lots of hugs.”
Community is no small thing for someone who’s been through organ transplantation, often a grueling process. In Weir’s case, the battle started long before surgery.
An inheritor of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that raises the risk of lung and liver disease, Weir had been diagnosed with emphysema in 2006 and put on oxygen.
She had been smoking since she was 21 and was told to be smoke-free for a year if she wanted to get on the organ donation waiting list. After two doses of a smoke-cessation drug prescribed by her doctor, she had a violent reaction, ending up on the bathroom floor of her house unable to breathe, while her husband called 911.
After that, she quit cold turkey. In the fall of 2007, she was put on the transplant waiting list. Around the same time, she had her dream. “It was so real,” she recalls.
Unbeknownst to Weir, three months later her doctors told Rich — who still works full time in air traffic control in Battle Creek — that his wife wouldn’t live to see the summer.
Three weeks after that, the hospital called to say they had a donor. Rich was out buying groceries and answered his cell phone, thinking his wife had forgotten to put something on the list. When Cathie told Rich the news — they had four hours to get to the hospital in Ann Arbor or her lungs would go to another family — he rushed home to get her and their daughter and then shaved 15 minutes off the two-hour drive to Ann Arbor.
Weir’s surgery took eight hours. When she was released two weeks later, her medications covered the top of the eight-foot-long buffet in her dining room.
The fragility of lungs means there is only a five-year survival rate of 50 to 60 percent, according to the University of Michigan Transplant Center.
“Everybody’s a different story,” Weir says, who has had her new lungs for over a decade now. “Some people don’t survive at all. Other people live for 20 years.”
The first years after Weir’s surgery were brutal. Vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects of transplant medications, and she had a perforated bowel from one of them. Unable to work, direct or act as the vital theater maven she once had been, she grew depressed.
“If it weren’t for my husband, I wouldn’t be alive,” she says. “There were days when I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was too painful, and I was tired.”
Some days, getting off the couch and picking up a newspaper was impossible for Weir. She once tried to lift a basket of laundry and couldn’t do it.
“It’s humbling,” Weir says, but she made strides and got her energy back. Then, in 2012, she came down with flu-like symptoms that didn’t go away.
She ignored them for weeks. “I’d been to so many doctors,” she says. “My life was hospitals and doctors, and I was sick of it.”
Finally, at a regular checkup, she learned her body might be rejecting the transplanted lungs. Her doctors admitted her to the hospital, where she stayed for a month.
Her doctors didn’t think she would make it, but she did. “I’ve kicked death four times,” she says with a laugh.
She documents all these experiences in I’ll See You Later, which took her about a year and a half to write. Ten percent of the proceeds from the book’s sales will be donated by Weir to Gift of Life–Michigan.
“People knew that I had been through the double lung transplant surgery, but they didn’t know what it entailed. When anyone asked about my experience it was difficult to explain everything,” Weir says. “I want to encourage other people to seriously consider organ donation. There are so many patients in life-threatening situations and without a donation they will die.”