Faith Gibson

Faith Gibson, 3, of Greenville, who received a heart transplant at 14 months old, stands by her mother, Jamie, while eating a lollipop.

Standing in front of a quilt made up of squares that commemorate those who chose to donate their organs when they died, a young mother held back tears as she thanked donors who give life to recipients, like her young daughter, Faith.

Jamie and Faith Gibson, of Greenville, attended the first flag raising ceremony held at Meadville Medical Center on Wednesday in honor of April being National Donate Life Month. The event was sponsored by MMC and the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), of Pittsburgh.

The crowd gathered at MMC and listened as Gibson, accompanied by her spirited 3-year-old daughter Faith, told of the difficult journey Faith and her family endured in her first three years of life.

The results of an ultrasound test performed when Gibson was 20-weeks during her pregnancy were devastating for her family. "The doctor told us that our baby was not compliant with life and would be born with half of a heart," she said. "He suggested we terminate the pregnancy."

Gibson and her husband Nathan didn't have to contemplate their decision for long. "We decided to carry her to term," Gibson said. "If we were to have her for just 24 hours, we wanted he her to know love."

As the Gibson's drove to another ultrasound test, when she was 36 weeks pregnant, they planned for a funeral and thought about how to help their 2-year-old daughter, Laci, understand what had happened to the baby sister she expected to have.

"The doctor left the room after the ultrasound test and came back in," Gibson said. "He told us he could not explain it but Faith's aorta had grown to the point where she would be a candidate for open heart surgery."

Faith Noelle Gibson was born on Nov. 16. She was just 17 days old when she had her first open heart surgery. "She did well for a while, but then started to decline," Gibson said.

When Faith was 4 months old the family traveled to Boston, where Faith underwent another surgery. The day after the surgery Faith flatlined as hospital staff took out the breathing tube, Gibson said. "Faith was brought back when doctors opened her chest again and hooked her up to an ECMO machine," Gibson said.

An ECMO machine drains the blood from the vein, adds oxygen and removes the carbon dioxide, warms the blood and then returns the blood to the artery and pumps it through the body. The ECMO pump allows the blood to bypass the heart and lungs.

Faith returned home three months later. Gibson's family not only struggled with Faith's health, but time together as a family with a 2-year-old daughter was at a minimum. "I never left Faith's side," Gibson said. "It was tough on our family, but we had a lot of support that helped us through." Faith's recovery was again short-lived.

Faith's next decline became more severe, according to Gibson. "Her oxygen levels would dip to dangerous levels and she would turn blue," Gibson said. When Faith was 10 months old, the Gibsons traveled to UPMC Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh for a feeding tube to sustain their daughter.

"The hospital wouldn't let us leave because Faith was too sick," Gibson said. During the 101 days Faith was at the hospital, she was taken off a transplant list twice because her condition was too dire.

In January, the Gibson's learned a donor heart had been found for Faith. "A surgeon flew in from New York with a heart in a cooler," Gibson said. Gibson's emotions ran the gamut from gratefulness to sorrow, as she thought of the sacrifice of the donor's family.

Gibson imagined those emotions as Faith lay on yet another operating table with her chest open waiting for a heart — a heart that almost didn't make it.

The weather was bad on the day of Faith's transplant. "It was snowing pretty bad that day in Pittsburgh," Gibson said.

On the way to the hospital, the ambulance carrying Faith's new heart got into an accident. "There's a four-hour window that a heart can be outside a body before it becomes non-viable for transplant," Gibson said. "The surgeon jumped into a police car and got to the hospital just in time."

Gibson saw a difference in her daughter immediately following the surgery. "My daughter was pink for the first time ever," she said. "It was like I almost got used to seeing her blue, but finally she was pink."

Less than one week ago, the Gibson family returned from a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. The trip was made possible through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

At the age of 3, Faith is meeting milestones for a child her age. "She's running around and fighting with her sister," Gibson said. "Unlike many parents, that's something I prayed for."

"Without the decision that another family made during the most difficult time they may have ever faced, we would not be here right now," Gibson said. 

Gibson was joined on Wednesday by another heart transplant recipient, Jeff Carpenter, 54, of Meadville. Carpenter received a donor heart in November 2013 after suffering five heart attacks. "There were times I thought I would be the donor and not the recipient," Carpenter said. "Now I feel better than I felt when I was 40."

Carpenter added some insight into the benefits of organ donation. "It's important to think about how many lives just one donor can save," he said. "The day I got a heart, someone else got a lung and others got organs from that one donor."

Carpenter advises people to consider organ donation while they are healthy. "It's so much easier for a grieving family if they don't have to make that decision for you," he said.

Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at lorrid@meadvilletribune.com.

You can be a donor

There are 121,000 people nationwide waiting for a transplant, including 8,500 in Pennsylvania. To become an organ donor go to core.org/register online or visit your local Department of Motor Vehicles.

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