The Gift of Life

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

HARRISON — Gordon McLaren knows he is lucky to have received a second chance at life.

For the past 10 years, Gordon has been living with fatty liver disease. This past December, his condition worsened, resulting in two emergency trips to the hospital. By January, his name was added to the national transplant list.

Luckily, a match surfaced shortly afterwards.

“I’ve been given a second chance,” said Gordon, known for his years of volunteerism, both at his church in Harrison and for the local youth baseball league. “I want to be sure others get that second shot at life, as well.”

As he continues his recovery, Gordon has embarked on a public awareness effort concerning the importance of organ and tissue donation. Over the past couple of weeks, Gordon has set up an information booth at blood drives held in Raymond, Naples and Casco as well as speaking with fairgoers during last week’s Old Home Days in Harrison.

Not only is Gordon McLaren talking about organ and tissue donation, he is showing how the transplant has turned his life completely around.

Last Wednesday, Gordon joined 123 others who participated in the Harrison Rec Department Run by the Lake 5K. Neither bad weather (a significant downpour) or some lingering doubts could keep the 58 year old from finishing.

“I started jogging at the beginning, walked and jogged at the end. I walked that distance before, but not trying to keep up any speed. Even though I finished second to last, it was positive for me because I was able to show people that it has just been five months (transplant Feb. 4) and I was able to get out and do something strenuous,” Gordon said. “I figured it would take me over an hour, but I managed to finish in less than an hour (46 minutes, 47 seconds). I was happy about that.”

Crossing the finish line, Gordon felt a sense of accomplishment, “although I really felt I could do it,” he said.

“There is no question that the liver is functioning well. Last week, the doctor said I was doing so well that I no longer had to have tests each week, but now just once a month. That was a positive note. I’ve had a couple of positive notes now over the past week,” he said.

With good health returning, Gordon McLaren has set out to create more public awareness concerning organ and tissue donation.

More than 100,000 Americans are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants and many more wait for donated tissues. On average, 17 people in this country die every day — 6,600 each year — waiting for organ transplant. The reason is simple — a tragic shortage of donated organs and tissues.

Over the next several weeks, Gordon plans to keep spreading the New England Organ Bank’s message, “Organ and tissue donation…the gift that keeps on living.”

“It means the world to me (the organ donation), like a second life,” he said.

A second chance

When Gordon McLaren first heard he had cirrhosis, he couldn’t believe it. Then, he received a clarifying statement. The disease was “not due to drinking (alcohol),” but caused by fatty tissue.

So, for the past decade, Gordon has monitored his disease by undergoing tests and ultrasounds twice a year.

Last September, while working at a SAD 61 school, Gordon was spotting blood. He was immediately taken to Bridgton Hospital, then transported by LifeFlight to Maine Medical Center. A procedure stopped the bleeding, but a short time later, Gordon would again return to the hospital for more treatment. Last December, Gordon went through two days of evaluation and tests. By late January, he was placed on the national transplant list.

“You just don’t know how long it will take to get a new liver. You could be on the list for two weeks or two years. It all depends on your blood type and whether they find a donor that is about the same body size,” he said.

Gordon really didn’t feel “too ill.” However, his fianceé noticed that his skin color had changed and he wasn’t standing straight.

His life changed on Feb. 3, 2011.

“I was quite surprised. It was 7:30 in the evening when I got a call from a surgeon at the Lahey Clinic saying they thought they had found a liver from a gentleman in New York,” Gordon said. “The doctor asked, ‘Do you want it?’ At first, I asked how long did I have to think about it. Yes, you want to have it done, but there is always a chance something might happen if something goes wrong, especially since I wasn’t feeling that bad. I asked my fiancé what she thought. She said, ‘You said yes, didn’t you?’ I just wanted to check to see what she thought, and then called the doctor right back.”

Gordon and his grandson were on the road to Burlington, Mass. (to the Lahey Clinic) by 9 p.m. that evening.

He thought about the upcoming transplant during the long drive, including the fact that his donated liver was from a 74-year-old man from New York.

“It really made no difference regarding the age as long as the organ was functioning,” he said. “I would rather have a 74 year old, functioning liver than take a chance on not getting one.”

The next morning, Gordon underwent a liver transplant.

“The surgeon said the liver was worse off than they expected. My body was going downhill rapidly and I didn’t realize it. I didn’t see myself as being yellow (in complexion),” he said.

After 12 days in the hospital, Gordon elected to return home rather than seek additional recuperation time at a nursing home. With the help of Androscoggin Home Health, Gordon felt the healing process would be quicker at home. For the first week, he was checked upon daily, especially since he was still on a feeding tube (8 p.m. to 8 a.m.).

“The recovery process seemed like it was a long time because I wanted to get out and do things again. It took two to three months before I felt exactly like myself,” he said. “I gained a lot of weight during surgery time (50 pounds thanks to all the fluids I had). It took while to drop my weight back down.”

But, he did. People who haven’t seen Gordon over the past six months are pleasantly surprised to see that he lost 90 pounds. And, his complexion is normal.

Gordon decided to be a transplant advocate after seeing a poster pinned to a hospital hallway bulletin board. One day while making his daily walk, Gordon stopped and read the poster. He decided he would contact the New England Organ Bank once he was well to seek information that could be passed along to the public.

“I want other people to have the chance like I had. There are so many people out there that could die if they don’t receive a transplant. I know it is hard for some people to make a decision to donate, but they should remember that if their child needed a transplant, wouldn’t they want an organ available to save his or her life?” he said.

Until he can return to work, Gordon plans to continue his volunteer public awareness drive. He freely speaks about his experience, and offers up information regarding how to sign up for organ and tissue donation, as well as answers questions about the subject.

“If you want to be a donor, be sure your family knows your wishes. There is nothing worse than a family going through a time of pain because of the loss of a loved one and be asked, ‘Do you know if they are signed up to be an organ donor?’” Gordon said.

Anyone wishing to speak to Gordon, he welcomes a call at 595-8731 or send an e-mail to gmclarenred@yahoo.com or stop by his informational booth.

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