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The Gift of Life | Patient Story

The Gift of Life | Patient Story

As an active 61-year-old mother and grandmother, Sally Jacobson never imagined her life’s story would include waiting for a liver transplant in order to survive. Sally had always enjoyed staying busy. In addition to her full-time job with Vaaler Insurance in Grand Forks, she was a Cub Scout den mother, 4-H leader, and church organist for over 40 years. But in August of 2005, just about a week after receiving a job promotion, Sally began feeling fatigued. She did her best to ignore it and push on until December, when she found herself in the emergency room.

A Failing Liver

After many tests and having over four liters of fluid drained from her right chest cavity, Sally was diagnosed with chronic autoimmune hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Altru gastroenterologist Dr. Chu confirmed that Sally would need a liver transplant. As ill as she felt, there was no hesitation on her part. In early 2006, she was placed on a transplant waiting list and referred to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

No Time to Spare

Sally’s condition deteriorated quickly to where she was unable to get out of bed without assistance from her caregiver and husband, Jake. Every two to three days she would undergo thoracentesis, the process of inserting a needle into her back to remove excess fluid between the lungs and chest wall. She knew that without receiving a liver transplant, she would not have long to live. “My surgeon at Mayo - who was from Bismarck, ND - had asked if I was willing to accept an older liver, should one become available. At that time, “he was the only surgeon in the country to transplant older livers into younger people, and having that option allowed him to better meet the existing needs for liver transplants.” In the US alone, there are 15,000 to 17,500 patients on a wait list at any given time.

A Miracle in the Making

As the Jacobsons waited for a possible liver, they began losing hope. On the very day the call came, Sally shared that “her husband had stepped out of their room to call family to tell them I probably wasn’t going to make it, knowing just how sick I was.” At her bedside was the hotel phone, which suddenly rang. “It was my surgeon!” exclaimed Sally. He informed her that a liver had become available and he needed her at the hospital within two hours.

Sally also shared that their son, Rob, and family were staying at the same hotel and had been down by the pool with the children, when Rob suddenly ran up three flights of stairs to check on her. As he came in the door he said, “Mom, you’ll never guess, but I just had this feeling that you’re going to get a liver tonight!” They were overjoyed. Before leaving the hotel, Sally’s family prayed together, for her and for the surgeons who would be performing the operation. Her husband added a special prayer for the donor’s family, knowing they had just lost their loved one.

It was April 2006, and prayers had been answered. Sally received a successful transplant. She learned that her liver had come from an 82-year-old gentleman in New York who had died from a brain aneurism. Sally was 61 at the time.

Amid Joy, Despair

Three weeks after receiving her transplant and while still in recovery at Mayo, Sally and her husband received the devastating news that they had lost their cherished granddaughter Nora to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Her tragic death happened at daycare just days short of her first birthday. Doctors at Mayo allowed Sally to return to North Dakota to grieve with family. Sally also shared that “my daughter and son-in-law “knew the importance of organ donation, and in a symbolic gesture they made their daughter an organ donor. They knew that without organ donation, I wouldn’t be here.”

Organ Donor Ambassador for Life

After receiving her liver transplant and ‘new chance at life,’ Sally made it her mission to do all that she could to educate and encourage others to be a donor. She knew what it was like from both sides of organ donation – receiving the gift of life from a stranger and having a family member be that gift of life to a stranger.

As an ambassador for organ donation, Sally received national recognition for her efforts. in 2012 she was named LifeSource Volunteer of the Year, and in 2015 was presented the Nicholas Miller Award for excellence in Donor Family Support. She continues to remind people of the importance that “one can be an organ donor at any age. You’re never too old.” Sally is living proof.

Together, Sally and Jake have often served wherever there is a need, including providing hospitality for Trails4Transplants, a 300+ mile horseback ride from Warren, MN to St. Anthony, ND. Their goal is raising awareness of organ and tissue donation while raising funds for the Gift of Life House in Rochester, MN. Proceeds provide affordable lodging for transplant patients and their families/caregivers. 

Sally also worked diligently toward establishing a state law requiring that public driver education classes include information about organ donation in their curriculum. That has been one of her proudest moments.

Living Legacy Wall – Locally

Sally was instrumental at advocating and raising funds for the Our Living Legacy Wall, which is located in the lobby at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks. In 2014 it was the first electronic donor tribute of its kind in North Dakota, and is updated annually as donor families are invited to submit photos and tributes of their loved ones. Among those highlighted is her granddaughter, Nora.

On April 23, 2014, her liver’s 90th birthday, Mayor Michael Brown proclaimed ‘“Donate Life Day” and presented Sally with a key to the city. Sally was the keynote speaker. And just this month she was presented a medallion by Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski in honor of “Donate Life Day” and her ongoing efforts to call attention to the importance of organ donation.

Sally spoke about a beautiful quilt she keeps on her bed, and the one block with a cross that she treasures. It reads: “I am somebody, but part of me belongs to someone else.” She added, “ You know God‘s hand was there.” Today, as she celebrates her liver’s 98th birthday, Sally continues to live life to the fullest. And she remains forever grateful.


Click to learn more about how to become a donor.