Amy Tippins struggled to express her immense sense of gratitude.
After all, how do you thank the family of a man who gives you a lifesaving liver, allowing you to live a long, full and healthy life?
“That first sentence of saying ‘thank you for the gift,’ I wrote that first sentence 740 times and then crumpled up the paper and threw it away,” she said.
Tippins eventually found the words: “thank you for all of these things given to me because of the gift of life … It has given me everything.”
Tippins recently connected with the family of Mike James, who died of an aneurysm at age 47 near Columbus, Ga., in early 1993. At the time, Tippins suffered from liver failure. Her survival depended on the generosity of a stranger.
On New Year’s Day, Tippins, 38, will honor James in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif. She will join other organ recipients in riding the Donate Life float, called “Light Up the World.” Donate Life is a nonprofit that encourages organ and tissue donation.
In recent days, Tippins and James’ older sister Jo West have worked together on a floragraph of James’ image made of roses, crushed seeds and other organic material. They formed eyebrows out of dark colored seeds. The floragraph will be placed on the float along with other floragraphs honoring the lives of donors.
Even before his death, James was a hero to many people. A U.S. Army veteran and decorated police officer, he knew the value and fragility of life.
“He would be thrilled to know he saved people’s lives,” West said. James’ heart and kidney also were donated, his sister said.
Tippins, who lives in Peachtree Corners, first felt symptoms related to liver disease when she was 12 years old after returning from a church trip. She had blisters on her ankle, and they spread up her leg. From there, she felt weak and jaundiced and would sleep for two, three days at a time. It took several years for doctors to diagnose her with hepatic adenoma, which is a rare benign tumor of the liver. By then, she was 17 and dying.
After the transplant surgery, it was unclear how long she would live with the new donated liver. Maybe months, maybe a few years, and maybe, just maybe, several years. She has lived 20 years with the donated liver — without any rejection issues. She remembers immediately feeling better after the transplant surgery at Emory University back in 1993. Her energy came back. Her yellow complexion turned creamy pink. She went on to graduate from high school and college.
On New Year’s Day, Tippins will be one of 30 donor recipients who will ride the Rose Parade float with illuminating lanterns.
West will be there in the stands looking on at the float, which also will feature five enormous lamps adorned with 81 floragraph portraits of deceased donors. Those donors include three from Georgia.
Also on the float will be Julie Allred, who has Type 1 diabetes. She lives in North Carolina, and through a clinical trial at Emory University, she received transplanted pancreatic islet cells, which produce insulin, in 2011 and 2012.
The float will be part of a parade watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators and millions more on TV.
“It’s an exceptional honor,” Tippins said. “The Rose Parade provides a lot of healing, and it’s an interesting celebration the outside world may not understand. There is a tremendous amount of tears, but you are also celebrating the lives of donors.”
About Donate Life Georgia
The Donate Life Georgia registry was created in 2008 to allow Georgians an easy and user-friendly means of joining the state’s registry for organ, tissue and eye donors. Georgians can join the registry through this website, when renewing their driver’s license online, or when obtaining/renewing their license at a local driver’s license office. You also can join the registry by calling Donate Life Georgia directly at 1-866-57-SHARE (1-866-577-4273) and request a donor registry form. If you already have “organ donor” on your driver’s license, you still are encouraged to join the new registry to ensure your previous designation is documented.
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, nearly 27,000 transplants have taken place at Georgia hospitals in the past 25 years. Today, 4,000 Georgians are among the more than 120,000 Americans waiting on a lifesaving organ transplant. Thousands more are in need of tissue and cornea transplants to restore their mobility and sight.