Liver transplant takes Anita Lewis on a harrowing journey
North Summit native says doctors, faith and family pulled her through
Summit County assistant manager Anita Lewis is back at work with a new liver and, literally, a new lease on life. This winter, the 28-year courthouse veteran endured two liver transplants and is now contemplating how to ensure she is worthy of her donors’ sacrifice.
While she does not yet know the names of the organ donors whose sudden deaths made her own recovery possible, Anita said she feels a deep debt of gratitude to them and to their families.
“I am a different Anita than the Anita I was six months ago,” she said, reflecting on the six-month ordeal that brought her to the brink of mortality twice: when she first became critically ill, and again when her body rejected her initial transplant.
Anita remembers beginning to feel “a little off” a few years ago. She was tired and experienced swelling in her legs, but passed it off as no more than an annoying sign of aging. By 2015, though, the symptoms had become more acute. Her eyes were yellowish and she suffered from bouts of itching. Finally, the Upton native who grew up on a working ranch reluctantly consulted a physician. He immediately referred her to a specialist.
The physician told Anita she had cirrhosis – a liver disease commonly associated with alcohol abuse. She was stunned.
“Well, I don’t drink,” said Anita, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prohibits the use of alcohol and tobacco.
Her doctor explained that it was “not completely out of the ordinary” for adult women, even non-drinkers, to develop cirrhosis. Subsequent tests confirmed the disease, so she began dutifully taking medicine, anticipating a quick recovery.
Besides, she was too busy to be sick. Her 88-year-old dad, Keith Blonquist, had fallen and broken his femur. In addition to her full time job as Summit County’s assistant manager, Anita began spending nights keeping him company at a rehab center.
“At that point, my health went on hold. I had to focus on my father,” she explained. A few months later, he was released but the respite was brief. In the spring of 2016 her dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Her attention shifted back to her dad, despite her declining health.
Keith Blonquist, her role model for hard work, died on Father’s Day. Three days later, her son Brandon was married. It was a whirlwind month.
By that time, Lewis recalls, her skin was completely yellow and, at work, she had to duck out for quick “power naps” in her car.
“My body started to cave,” she said.
But the rancher’s daughter was reluctant to slow down. “I don’t like to go to the doctor, I never have. I just kept pushing.”
That’s the way it was when she spent the summers as a child driving a tractor while her brother tossed hay bales to the cattle.
“We were raised to work the land,” she said. “My father didn’t have a job where he had insurance, so when we were kids we just didn’t go to the doctor. We didn’t have the income. When you are a farmer, and that is your sole income, it wasn’t a lot.”
Since then, Anita hasn’t strayed far from the ranch or its work ethic. She and her husband Kyle Lewis, a retired captain in the Summit County Sheriff’s Department, still live on the land where she grew up.
Liver transplant: Round 1
By August, it became apparent to Anita’s son Ashley, a paramedic with the Park City Fire District, that his mom was struggling. He insisted she go to the emergency room. The doctors there sent her to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, which has one of the county’s top liver transplant programs.
According to Anita, “That is when it all began. They told me, ‘Your liver is toast, we need to put you on the list for a transplant.’”
In fact, Anita’s’s condition was so dire, her name went to the top of the hospital’s recipient waiting list.
As the doctors outlined the risks and benefits of the procedure, Anita drew on lessons learned from her dad.
“I get this from my father. If that’s what needs to be done, that’s what needs to be done. I knew I could not go on the way I was,” she said.
In the meantime, Anita kept going to work — right up through Sept. 19 when she received an after-dinner call that a liver was available. At 4 a.m. on Sept. 20, she was wheeled into the operating room.
With characteristic optimism, Anita was already looking beyond the surgery and toward attending an NFL game in Kansas City featuring University of Utah alumnus Alex Smith.
Unfortunately, her medical chart did not reflect her sunny disposition. Instead it indicated that her body was rejecting the unfamiliar organ.
“That was probably the first time I was scared. I wanted to get out of the hospital and it was so painful” said Anita, adding that she ended up watching the game in the hospital.
The doctors, though, believed she would weather the initial rejection. After a week, and in her words “tons of IVs,” they sent her home.
Liver transplant: Round 2
A month later, she was readmitted with a severe infection.
“November was a blur, I just remember being very sick and in and out of the hospital,” she said.
Finally her doctors and her family broke the bad news. The liver had failed. She needed a second transplant.
Choking up at the memory of that moment, Anita said, “I was so angry. I told my husband ‘I am NOT going through that again.’ I said ‘When it’s your time, it’s your time.’”
With her family all gathered in the room, the doctor told her, in that case, she could only expect to survive another six to nine weeks. And they would be miserable.
“I felt, I don’t drink why did I get this in the first place? I followed their directions. I did everything they told me to do. I was very defiant and I was not nice to them. My family was crying, I was crying,” she said.
But then, she said, she looked into her two sons’ eyes and realized that she wasn’t ready to leave them.
Ashley remembers that day and it is still painful. “It is hard to describe the range of emotions we went through as a family and as individuals. It was a roller coaster that really put everything else in perspective.”
Anita told them she would think about it on two conditions: that they would find two other women she could talk to who had each undergone two transplants, and they would not restrict her pain medication the way they had before.
The hospital complied.
Anita was introduced to a spry 70-year-old woman who “walked in like a little dynamo. She understood the pain, why I was thinking what I was thinking and she said ‘Just pull on your boots and do it again, I am glad I did.’ She looked so healthy, it was amazing.”
The second woman “looked fabulous” too, according to Anita, and told her “You can do this. You have things you need to do.”
So she relented. Her name went back on the transplant waiting list. On Dec. 21, a second liver was found. But Anita wasn’t out of the woods.
While he procedure went according to plan, on Christmas Day Anita’s spirits sank to a new low. A snowstorm delayed her family’s arrival, leaving her alone in her all-too familiar hospital room.
She likened her IV stand to a poor excuse for a Christmas tree, bedecked with oxygen and feeding tubes and six drains.
“I was all alone in this hospital and my faith that I was going to get better was not there,” she said.
The turning point for Anita was a spiritual one. A group of caroling nurses came by and as they sang she said, “I felt my Savior’s arms come down and hold me. I felt then everything is going to be OK. I am going to survive.”
On the road to recovery
Anita is now back at work in the county courthouse –- still recovering but grateful to be among the friends and colleagues who supported and comforted her last winter. She laughingly tells them, “I went to hell, the devil spit me out and then I went to hell again.”
On a more serious note, she adds, “It was the most painful and blessed experience I have ever gone through in my life.”
In addition to her newfound faith, Anita is committed to finding a way to express her gratitude to the families of the donors who consented to give her a second chance at life.
One way is to support organ donor awareness. Both she and her husband admit they were not organ donors before Anita’s experience.
“Now, how could I not? My life was saved twice because of someone who was willing to donate their organs.”
She is hoping to contact her second donor’s family and says she has started composing a letter to them. “It is going to be the toughest letter I have ever written — to a family who brought me life on Christmas when they were burying someone. I just feel so unworthy for having two chances at life.”
To learn more about becoming an organ donor go to: yesutah.org
Please see “Medical director urges more to become donors” for further reading.
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