By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — A new lease on life is what Laurel native Billie Blankenship Lancaster celebrates each and every day.
And she has good reason to do so. Lancaster has undergone two organ transplants since 2006.
It began when she went to Saint Joseph London’s emergency room in 2002. She was shocked to learn that she was in kidney failure. Lancaster was in a dilemma — she was newly divorced, had no insurance, and was in desperate need of medical treatment. She was put on a chemotherapy drug that slows the progression of the auto immune disease that affected her kidney, but in 2005 her kidney was functioning at only 10 percent. She was registered on the organ transplant list later that year.
It was almost miraculous when Lancaster got a call that a kidney was available on Aug. 26, 2006. She went to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, where she underwent the transplant.
“The kidney started working right on the operating table,” Lancaster said. “I went home the fourth day after surgery.”
Her treatment, however, will continue for the remainder of her life and includes taking medication and regular lab work to check her blood and fluid levels.
Like most organ donors, Lancaster had to wait one year before asking to contact the donor family members. But she had sent letters through the organ donor coordinator to the family and had received some back. Her continued progress inspired her to meet the family so she could personally thank them face to face.
That’s where Libby Travis Traylor came into Lancaster’s life.
A resident of Princeton, Ky., Traylor was devastated when her husband, Roy Travis, died from a traffic accident on Aug. 26, 2006 in Calvert City when his motorcycle was struck by a vehicle. Travis was flown to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville where he later died.
Although Travis was not a registered organ donor, when his brother mentioned it to Libby, she was more than willing.
“I loved Roy with all my heart,” she said. “But he was gone. He wasn’t an organ donor, but he had talked about it. My mom’s boyfriend mentioned donating his organs and I said yes. I donated his heart, kidneys, long bones (upper leg bones), corneas, and tissues. But I made the restriction that they could only be donated to Kentucky residents.”
Her logic in that decision came from her aunt, who was on the donor list for a liver for five years.
“She waited all those years and even carried a beeper if a liver became available,” Traylor said. “She died waiting.”
Luckily, things worked in Lancaster’s favor with a transplant, with Roy’s kidney working perfectly. Although both Lancaster and Traylor wanted to meet each other, they bided their obligatory waiting period before Lancaster traveled to Princeton in the midst of a snow storm in Feb. 2009 to meet the wife of the man who gave her a second lease on life.
“When I first saw her walking to my door, I thought, ‘Good, she’s blonde. Roy always liked blondes.’ But I knew before we met we’d be friends, just from the letters we had written each other,” Traylor said.
Laughing, Lancaster said she was surprised when Traylor asked her about some of her personal traits.
“She asked me if I liked beer, because Roy liked to drink beer,” Lancaster said.
But after five years, the transplanted kidney failed and Lancaster had to undergo another kidney transplant.
“It’s different knowing that you have someone else’s kidney,” she added. “When you have a kidney transplant, they don’t take your kidneys out. Now, I have four kidneys.”
Although Traylor donated all of her deceased husband’s organs and tissues, Lancaster is the only recipient who responded to her.
“I guess some people just aren’t ready to meet the family who donated the organs,” Traylor said. “But I’m glad Billie contacted me. I have a new friend.”
Now remarried, Traylor said the role of organ donors is even more real to her. In fact, she has registered to be an organ donor herself, as have many of her family members.
“We see the importance of it,” Traylor said. “It saves lives.”