Nearly seven years ago, 28-year-old Jessica Chipkin, a 2001 graduate of found herself in the intensive care unit of New York Presbyterian Hospital awaiting a life-saving liver transplantation. Chipkin and her father, David, have been on a quest to bring awareness to organ donating since then.
Just finishing her fourth year of college at Penn State, Jessica Chipkin said she didn’t even realize she was sick until she collapsed on June 6, 2005. She blamed the symptoms she had, such as being out of breath after walking uphill, tiredness, weight gain and not being able to concentrate on a college lifestyle.
“I was just living my life as a 20-something. I didn’t really think too much of it,” she said.
After she collapsed, it took what she describes as the longest week-and-a-half of her parents’ lives to diagnose her with Wilson’s Disease, an inherited disorder she was born with that went undiagnosed.
“It’s a crazy disease,” Chipkin said. “It prevents the liver from getting rid of copper.”
By the time Chipkin was diagnosed with Wilson’s Disease, she was in acute liver failure, which meant the only thing that could save her life was a liver transplantation. She remained in the ICU unit for nine days, receiving intensive treatments, while she waited for a new liver to be found.
“They were doing everything they could to keep me alive and keep me strong,” she said.
Chipkin received her liver transplantation on June 24. Many patients wait several months to a few years for a transplant to become available and some never receive a call for the lifesaving transplant, she said.
“It’s very sad,” Chipkin said. “For every one person that receives a transplant, there are 18 who die. There are not enough organs available.”
Chipkin said that part of the issue is that people aren’t educated on organ transplantation.
“It’s changed me and I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I don’t know if I was just naïve or if it’s that it wasn’t taught.”
While April is National Donate Life month, drawing the national spotlight to organ donation, education needs to be a continual effort. Chipkin now works with many local organizations to bring awareness to organ transplantation, along with her father. She said she does a lot of work with both the New Jersey Sharing Network and the New York Organ Donor Network. She is also active with the American Liver Foundation, raising money for the organization and participating in their programs, even running in two New York City Marathons as a member of their Liver Life Challenge team.
One initiative Chipkin and her father have been involved with is talking to high school students in their driver’s education courses though the New Jersey Sharing Network.
“It’s simply education,” Jessica Chipkin said. “I wasn’t an organ donor. It wasn’t because I said 'no.' I didn’t know what it was.”
She has even visited Kinnelon High School driver's education classes with the message. Her father said this is part of driver's education curriculum now and hearing the message from someone closer to their age makes a larger impact.
One of the things students are taught is that they can be a hero even after their time on earth has ended. By checking off the organ donation box on a driver’s license, someone can save or enhance up to 50 people’s lives, David Chipkin said. It’s not just the heart, liver, and kidneys that can be donated. In total, 22 different organs and tissues can be donated, including the pancreas, lungs, corneas, skin, bones, heart valves, intestines, ligaments, bones, saphenous veins and tendons.
David Chipkin said Mayor Robert Collins signed a proclamation declaring April Donate Life month in the borough. He said his daughter plans to contact other local municipalities to request their mayors pass similar proclamations.
Part of Donate Life month is a push to register 20 miilion Americans to be organ donors in 2012. People can register to be a donor here. Part of this effort to reach new donors will ask people to help increase awareness for the cause by donning a blue or green shirt on April 20, National Donate Life Blue and Green Day. David Chipkin said residents can also visit borough hall to pick up a free green wristband that says “Donate Life” as early as the end of this week to help draw awareness to the cause.
“Prior to Jessica, I was very confused about what organ donation was about,” David Chipkin said. “I have a passion to help educate people, not to harass them into being organ donors, so they can make their own educated decisions.”
He said that if the person who was daughter's donor hadn’t been educated and agreed to be a donor, his daughter would not be alive.
“I need to have other Jessicas in the world be able to do what they were meant to do,” David Chipkin said.
While her parents, David and Diana, and her younger brother, Justin, still live in Kinnelon, Jessica Chipkin now resides in West New York with her fiancé. She has fared well since her organ transplantation, returning to a normal life. Chipkin was discharged from the hospital just a week after receiving her new healthy liver.
She said normally transplantation patients are told to expect a full six months for recovery, but she returned to Penn State that fall, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications and a minor in psychology. Since then, she has also earned a master’s degree from Hunter College in clinical social work.
Chipkin is also in the midst of planning her Sept. 1 wedding. She is not only excited about her marriage, but also that she has had the opportunity to invite members of her transplantation team that have had such a profound impact on her life in many ways.
She ran her first marathon in 2009 with several members of her transplantation team, including her transplant psychiatrist, Dr. Silvia Hafliger and surgeon Dr. Ben Samstein. It was actually Hafliger that convinced her she’d be able to train to run her first NYC Marathon on the Liver Life Challenge Team.
“I never thought I would run a marathon, and I’ve run two. In about 30 seconds (of talking with Dr. Hafliger) I managed to convince myself that I could do this,” she said. “If I can do it, anyone can. I built up from a 10-minute run.”
And that was with facing many challenges the summer of 2009, which held back her training. She first had a bout with Swine Flu and then had to have emergency surgery in July to repair a volvulus, a condition where there is abnormal twisting in the intestines. That same July, she also suffered a transplant rejection episode, but medication adjustments were able to return her liver enzymes to a normal level.
Chipkin again ran the marathon in 2010 with the goal of being able to train properly and plans on running on the same team again in future.
Chipkin's dream for her future includes working with nonprofits and agencies on program development to better the experience patients and their families have during treatment processes, as well as developing educational components for patients and families. For now, Chipkin is thoroughly enjoying her time working for a small dog walking company in Hoboken where she is handling all aspects of the business from co-managing the day-to-day operations to working with both the human and canine clients.
“I’ve learned that life is too short not to be happy,” she said. “If you are good at something, that’s what you should do. Follow your passions and do what feels right.”