On June 9, Sue Koch celebrated the 25th anniversary of her heart and double-lung transplant. She has survived five transplants since 1987.
"I'm like Betty White," the Newton Falls woman said. "I'm the luckiest old broad on earth. I feel very blessed."
"I had whooping cough when I was two months old. Whooping cough can cause bronchiectasis, which is what I had. It's a deterioration of the lungs," said Koch.
From left, Joanne Dydell, Sue Koch and Deanie Simpson, all of Newton Falls, toast to Koch’s health following five organ transplants. Koch received a heart and lungs in 1987 and two kidneys in 1997.
Koch suffered from progressive lung-related illnesses all her life, and by the time she was 40 years old, she had to physically clear her lungs of mucus more than four times a day.
"I did postural drainage during my lunch hour down in the employee lounge. I'd take my percussor that beats you on your back and I'd just lean over the footstool. It wasn't easy. I just coughed continuously. At nighttime, the only way I could get any sleep at all was sitting on the floor, wrapped up in a blanket with my arms up on the bed. I was on full oxygen and could have used more. It went on for several years."
Koch knew she would need a transplant in 1980, but she didn't get one until 1987.
How to help
Learn more about organ donation and how to sign up to be an organ donor at organdonor.gov.
"She went into the hospital on Mother's Day of 1987 with respiratory arrest, and she didn't come home until she had her transplant at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Hospital on June 9," said Koch's sister, Deanie Simpson of Newton Falls.
"At that point, her doctor said that if she didn't get the surgery she would live for two weeks or less," said Simpson.
"I'll never forget it, my mother and I were there and we heard this ruckus out in the hallway and I saw the doctor motion to Mom so she went outside and they told her they had a donor," Simpson said. "I think all the nurses came in that room and they said, 'Well honey, we got it. You're going today.' And everybody's clapping and laughing. You could just feel God in that room."
It couldn't have come at a better time.
"I only weighed 83 pounds going into surgery. It was either get a transplant or die," said Koch.
Years of violent, incessant coughing placed so much stress on her heart that she would need to have it replaced along with her lungs.
"My surgeon told my mother that I only had a 50 percent chance of surviving the procedure," Koch said. "That's why I told him afterward that you can't give up on people. Mine was a miracle."
"I was 46 years old when I got my transplants, it was right before my birthday. There were four others across the country who had the same procedure, but I was on the only one who survived," said Koch.
Koch's health troubles weren't over yet.
"From January of 1988 through 1998, I was good," Koch said. "I had so much energy nobody could keep up with me. I was doing aerobics two times a week, nautilus three times a week and walking six miles a day. I made prayer shawls for church, I was in the bell choir, I helped Deanie do the Red Cross drive, I took care of a friend who had a stroke," but with a change in her anti-rejection medication came another blow to her health.
"I was doing all this exercise and suddenly, I couldn't get from one end of the room to the other," said Koch. "By the end of May 1997, I was in complete kidney failure. It turns out that the five of us who either had heart or lung transplants for some reason, couldn't tolerate the new drug." She had double kidney transplants on March 2, 1998.
Koch credits her transplants with giving her 25 years of life.
"I know if I hadn't gotten those transplants, I wouldn't have seen Christmas Eve of 1987," she said.
"The hardest part I had was praying that she would get transplants," Simpson said. "It was hard because you knew somebody else had to die and you don't want someone else to die. It was the hardest thing."
However, Koch's experience has given her family and friends a new perspective on organ donation.
"I think it's very important to be an organ donor," said Joanne Dydell of Newton Falls, a friend of Koch and Simpson. "I want to give anything I can."
"We've all signed up to donate when we die," said Simpson. "Some people are afraid doctors are going to let them die or kill them just so they can take their organs but that doesn't worry me. The way I look at it, I'm helping someone else. As a donor, you live on in someone else."
As for Koch, she never forgets what her transplants brought her.
"She's loving, caring, does a lot for the church, and I feel she's a very giving person," Dydell said. "She's very strong and tries to give people hope."
"After all this took place," said Koch, "I try to give back for what's been given to me."