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Betty Crawford credits two things for saving her life when her kidneys were failing and her diseased liver had swollen to weigh 30 pounds: God and a person she never had the opportunity to meet.
That person was an organ donor from the mountains of West Virginia. Though many recipients never find out who gave them their organs, Crawford, a LaRue County native who lives near Hodgenville, not only found out her donor’s name, but also visited the woman’s family last September to thank them personally.
“I am so grateful,” said Crawford, who, with anti-rejection medicine, is living a normal life eight years after the surgery.
She suffers from polycystic kidney disease which not only caused multiple cysts on her kidneys, but also spread to her liver.
It is an inherited disorder that is passed from parents to children. Both her late brothers, B.H. and Billy were diagnosed with the disease.
“B.H. found out that he had it in 1979,” she said. “He told me then I’d better have myself checked out,” Crawford said. When she did, she discovered that she also had PKD, but she showed no symptoms and felt good even when she went to a local doctor in 1985 who told her that the disease was damaging her liver to the point where she would be a candidate for a transplant within five years.
Gradually, she began to feel a lump growing in her abdomen.
“I didn’t have any pain, but the liver enlarged to the point that people were asking me when I was due,” she said.
In December 2005, she went to the lab for tests and the results showed the kidneys and liver had deteriorated to the point that a transplant was needed, and soon.
“They did a CAT scan, and put me on a donor’s list,” she said.
Ten days later, she was awakened by a 4 a.m. phone call from Jewish Hospital, informing her that donor organs had been found.
Dene Workman Baisden was a 57-year-old loan officer at City National Bank at West Hamlin, W.V. Customers reportedly waited in line at the bank for her rather than have any other employee handle their business. Throughout the area, she, her mother, Macie Workman, and sister, Betty Workman Baisden, were well-known for their gospel singing.
Dene was married and had three sons and a stepdaughter. She and her sister married brothers. Known as a charitable Christian, she had signed on as an organ donor when she renewed her driver’s license.
While serving on jury duty on Jan. 6, 2006, she collapsed with a brain aneurysm while having lunch with other jurors and never regained consciousness. After surgery that night and repeated tests the next day, she was declared brain dead.
Her sister said the family felt sure that she would want to give the opportunity to live to others, so the family met with the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates at St. Mary’s Hospital and began the process of carrying out Dene’s wishes.
With the arrival of the organs, Crawford’s 14-hour surgery began on Jan. 7. After having to return to the operating room the next day because of some bleeding, she spent the next three weeks in the hospital followed by rehabilitation in a Louisville nursing home, and later more rehab in Elizabethtown.
“God blessed me with an extended family who helped me get through this,” she said. “And I’ll never forget the ladies from LaRue Baptist Church who came and prayed with me while I was in the hospital.”
She also couldn’t forget the person who had given her the gift of life. In 2010, she wrote a letter to the donor family and sent it to KODA, asking them to forward it.
It read, in part, “It is impossible for me to comprehend your feelings of loss and sorrow... As a Christian, I believe that all things work together for good. I desire more than anything else to let you know how thankful that I and my family are that you chose to give me the gift of life ... Thank you for your unselfish act of kindness and ultimate act of charity.”
Dene’s sister responded in a letter, “I would like to meet you some day, but for now I would like to correspond by letter or email ... I hope you will be understanding in this matter as this is still very, very difficult for me and my family.”
The two Bettys became more familiar with each other through several phone conversations until on Sept. 20, 2013, Crawford with her friend Kathy Ovesen decided to drive to the family’s home.
“It was about a four-hour drive to their town located between Charleston and Huntington,” said Crawford.
When she pulled into the driveway, Betty Baisden came out of the house to greet her.
“It was an emotional moment; she and I both cried and hugged each other,” said Crawford. “Then, when we went inside, most of the entire family – brothers, sisters, parents, children – were there.”
They shared stories of their family, faith, personal recollections – all topped off by a meal. The family gave Crawford an angel from Dene Baisden’s collection to take home with her as a reminder.
“I know it was hard for them, for as they looked at me they could see how I was able to be there because of what Dene did, but at the same time, they were reminded of how one they loved so well was gone,” said Crawford. “It was a healing time for all of us.”
Thanks to Baisden’s gift, Crawford is living life to its fullest, enjoying traveling and fulfilling other things she has written on her “bucket list.” She is also working to get more people to sign donor cards.
“A wise man once said that unless you walk a mile in another one’s shoes you don’t know how they feel,” she said. “I’ve been there, and know that signing a donor card can mean life instead of death.”