Debbie and John Pinjuv

Debbie with her dog Patches                          

A crusader becomes a survivor
by John Trent

Nevada Silver & Blue
Jan/Feb 2000

Debbie Pinjuv has been to the brink, and back.  In May, she was certain her life was over.  After struggling with a failing liver for seven years–and having languished on a transplant list for more than two–Pinjuv decided enough was enough.

“I knew I was dying,” says Pinjuv, who received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Nevada (in sociology and counseling, respectively). ” I wasn’t giving up, but it was an acceptance of the inevitable.  I told friends what music I wanted at my funeral.  I told my family I had seen the reality of the situation.”

For months, Pinjuv’s body had overloaded with toxins.  Her liver failing, her body could not excrete impurities, which created a mass of ammonia seizing every healthy organ.  Pinjuv’s eyesight was cloudy, her normally vibrant blue eyes replaced by sickly yellow jaundice.  Her thoughts were jumbled and confused.  Some days, she barely had the mental capacity to count out change while shopping.

“At times, I had so much ammonia in my system, I couldn’t even keep my head up,” Pinjuv says.  “I couldn’t focus my eyes.  I couldn’t make eye contact with someone.  That’s how limited, how crunched, your world gets.”

In hindsight, Pinjuv–married and a mother of two teen-age sons–showed remarkable fortitude.  She had served as counselor to a support group of liver transplant candidates and recipients, formed a non-profit organization called The Transplant Network to raise awareness for organ donation, and testified before the state Senate and Assembly in April in a successful effort to make donor identification cards legally binding and to allow directed donations in Nevada.

Perhaps, Pinjuv reasoned, she had done enough.  Maybe it was time to die.  “I really do believe you’re put on Earth to do certain things…and I felt at that time that I had probably done everything I possibly could.”

Then, just as quickly as Pinjuv had accepted her fate, something happened.  The phone in her southwest Reno home rang at about 7:45 p.m. on May 29.  A donor had been found.  Her transplant was on.  Immediately Pinjuv, her husband, John, and sons Kevin, 19, and Kyle, 16, piled into the family car.  They arrived at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif., shortly after midnight.  Pinjuv’s transplant was performed about seven hours later.

The moment she awoke from the transplant, she knew.  She was not going to die.  Twelve short hours, from phone call to transplant, had made all the difference.

“When my family came into the room, it was amazing,” Pinjuv says. “I always knew if I ever did get a new liver, I’d by home-free.  My brain had immediately cleared.  Everybody who saw me said they could see it in my eyes.  I was back.  They could tell who I was again.”

Today, Pinjuv remains back from the brink. Her group The Transplant Network continues to inform and educate and raise awareness.  “Only three states have our law that makes the driver’s license legal and binding for organ donation,” she says, referring to the option drivers have of listing themselves as organ donors.  Pinjuv points out that many families, because of grief and shock, refuse to allow a deceased loved one to donate organs.  But if organ donation was the person’s wish, “then it should be made to happen,” Pinjuv argues.

A second law, passed in the 1999 Legislature, allows donor families the choice of offering loved ones’ organs first to a Nevada patient.

Pinjuv still served as the mortar that holds her support group together.  “My main love is working with the transplant people,” she says.  “I always use my own experience when I talk with them.  They’re 35 other liver patients, and I’m one of them.”

She never thought she’d say it, but Pinjuv is more than a fighter.  She is a survivor–so much so she has to chuckle when asked her age.

“It’s funny, but I’ve ‘remained’ 42 years old in several different articles,” says Pinjuv, who is thankful for the excellent media coverage she has received in recent months.

“I’m 44 now.  Can you imagine?  Isn’t it wonderful?  I never thought I’d be alive to say that.”


More articles and stories about Debbie:

Small Acts Make A Big Difference
Those needing liver transplants find tough, long wait
Organ Donation Lobbyist Gets Transplant
Committed to Community – The Tranplant Network

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