Heidi Smith

Hope for the holidays
November 19, 2006

by: JACLYN O’MALLEY

Heidi Smith has something extra to celebrate this Thanksgiving: her life.

Since her liver transplant about a year ago — after an almost 11-year wait — Smith’s recovery has included immersion into the Nevada political spotlight and regaining her sharp sense of humor and energy.

“Last Thanksgiving was a good-bye of sorts, but this one is a welcome back to the world,” said Smith’s husband, Steve, of the upcoming holiday. The couple have six adult children, eight grandchildren and four more grandchildren on the way.

Heidi Smith, 59, had been waiting for a liver transplant since a 1980 life-saving blood transfusion after a miscarriage exposed her to the hepatitis C virus. The virus, along with late developing cancer, ravaged her liver.

Smith was given two months to live before the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland called her the night after Christmas to say she didn’t have to wait anymore. Smith and her husband boarded a plane that night.

“I knew I may not make it because my disease was so far advanced, and when you know you are going to die, you have to prepare,” Smith said. “When you wake up and you’re not dead, you realize you have to keep going and that you have a purpose. That’s why you got a second chance.”

Despite an infection that has been helped recently by experimental drugs, Smith said her body has not rejected the new liver. The anti-rejection medications she takes suppress her immune system, making her vulnerable to infections the body would normally fight off.

But her life is back.

“Thanksgiving last year was more of a good-bye to my family because I thought it was the last one,” she said. “I gave my family things I thought they should have because I didn’t expect to come back. But now, instead of good-bye, I have things I have to do.”

The Smiths plan on cooking a huge Thanksgiving feast at their home and will be joined by two of their children and their families. In December, Smith will have a comprehensive check-up at the Portland transplant hospital during a trip that will coincide with visiting their daughter who will have delivered twins. From there, they will visit the rest of their newly born grandchildren.

She hopes doctors can discover the cause of her infection and get rid of it for good.

‘Back to normal’

Smith is the chairwoman of the Washoe County Republican Party and worked during this past election that was peppered with scandal. Smith offered her thoughts to local and national media about the death of her friend and former state controller Kathy Augustine, who police said was killed by her husband. She was quoted in People Magazine as “Kathy” Smith, and she appeared on a Fox News cable television show discussing Augustine. Smith also spoke to news outlets on aspersions surrounding Gov.-elect Jim Gibbons and a Las Vegas cocktail waitress’s pre-election assault claims.

A television camera crew followed Smith and her husband around town as they knocked on doors before election night to encourage people to vote.

“It feels good to be working in politics again. It’s an addiction that hasn’t left me,” Smith said. “It really feels like life is back to normal.”

Smith is also a proud spokeswoman for organ donation and encourages everyone to give the gift of life.

But there are some differences she has noticed since her transplant.

“The bloating is gone, that’s really good,” she said. “No one has asked me if I’m pregnant lately. That’s an improvement.”

Smith said she also developed strange new cravings for peanut butter and Wheat Thins after her transplant. The ammonia that built up in her brain when her liver wasn’t functioning used to make her forgetful and caused her to get lost easily. Now with the ammonia levels decreased, her short-term memory is still faded, but her cognitive skills are back. She also doesn’t have to sleep 18 hours a day.

Smith recalled a drawing one of her daughters made in school that featured Smith sleeping. The caption said: “This is what mommy does all day.”

“Her general health has improved to the point where she was 10 to 15 years ago,” Steve Smith said. “Her demeanor and personality has perked right up.”

He said their relationship has also improved.

“When you think you’re going to die tomorrow, it affects your head,” he said.

It’s not all rosy

Steve Smith said now his wife doesn’t need to be reminded to take her 16 daily medications and he doesn’t have to accompany her everywhere to make sure she doesn’t get lost. Unfortunately, because Smith had been waiting so long for a liver, the ammonia levels in her brain became toxic and caused brain damage.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a fog, like when you first wake up,” she said. “It’s tough to get orientated and you have to fight to remember.”

When Smith awoke from her more than 11-hour transplant surgery, she said she felt like a cyborg because of all the tubes connected to her body and down her throat. She said she was hooked up to a computer that was monitored by hospital staff.

“I was afraid if I got up or coughed my insides would spill out, but they didn’t,” she said of her initial fears.

Smith stayed at her son’s home in Portland with his family for two months before she came back home to Reno. Then she began to investigate her donor.

Ultimately she learned she was a 52-year-old woman named Robin from Idaho who died in a traffic crash. She exchanged letters with Robin’s parents and husband and was sent Robin’s photo, which she carries in her wallet. Smith is making arrangements to meet her donor’s husband.

“Heidi was able to maintain her good spirits throughout her wait for a liver, but now she has a dramatic pick up,” her husband said. “She definitely has a new lease on life.”

Read more articles about Heidi:

Strong will, sense of humor keep Reno mother going after 10 years waiting for liver transplant
November 7, 2005

Reno woman receives new liver after 10-year wait
January 7, 2006

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