In the spring of this year, Gail Jones had to face a sobering reality: Her liver was failing and she wouldn’t survive without a replacement. “I was getting really sick,” Jones said. “I knew if it didn’t happen soon, it was going to be too late.”
The gravity of her situation turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because she was in such danger, Jones had high priority status on the transplant recipient list. And on a Wednesday night in July, destiny called. Jones, 66, was just getting into bed when the phone rang at 9:30 p.m. — a liver was available; it was time to go. There was no time to think about it, barely even time enough to worry. She was at the University of San Francisco by 12:30 a.m. and was in surgery Thursday afternoon.
Jones had received a blood transfusion in the 1970s that carried Hepatitis C with it, and after living with the disease for decades Jones developed cirrhosis from it. The cirrhosis ravaged her liver, and in April 2009 the organ developed cancer. The doctors defeated her cancer, but the prognosis was still bleak — Jones said doctors told her it was not a matter of if the cancer would come back, but when.
Lodi Dr. David Aarons told Jones she needed a transplant and placed her on the organ waiting list, which already had thousands of names on it.
And so she waited for the call that would extend her life. Jones was told she needed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice if a liver became available.
“You have to be ready to go as soon as they call,” Jones said. “Because if you’re not ready to go, they’ll give it to someone else.”
She kept a suitcase of clothes ready and had people at work on standby for months while she waited.
“That gets to be tedious,” she said. “Waiting has got to be the toughest part ... It’s worse than the surgery. It’s worse than anything.”
In the meantime, life wasn’t very pleasant for her. She still went to her job as an accounts payable specialist at Lodi Memorial Hospital everyday, but was constantly fatigued. Every day felt like she was coming down with a flu or cold that never came, she said.
“I was dragging myself to work,” Jones said. “I was just really tired.”
After finally getting a new liver in July, she still had a long way to go. Her body had to accept the organ it had just received from a stranger, and she would need to find someone to take care of her for several weeks after the procedure; Jones’ husband died in 2005, and their only son died many years ago. But a member of her church, Dee Dee Daniel, brought Jones into her home, and Daniel’s husband and two children welcomed Jones into their family.
“I’m an adopted grandma,” she said. “The whole family sacrificed for me.”
Now, less than six months later, Jones is back in her own home and working again. There are a lot of requirements for her now: She has to avoid crowds, be very mindful of germs and take an array of medications. And although her body has accepted the liver, it could still reject it at any time.
But she’s alive, and is happy and thankful for her new lease on life. Jones said she is very grateful to God, all of her doctors and the people at her church, First Baptist on North Mills Avenue, for helping save her life.
Jones is back to volunteering, which she did previously before having to stop during her illness. She’s even going to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army during the holidays.
“I feel terrific,” Jones said. “I just want to give back as much as I can.”
— Fernando Gallo/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
A daughter’s comment changes a life
Tammy Ghirardelli became hooked on nicotine after firing up her first cigarette at the tender age of 12. For decades, Ghirardelli smoked Marlboro Lights and spent thousands of dollars on cigarettes. The 49-year-old claims processor for Blue Shield of California works at the Lodi campus off Harney Lane and said she is grateful for the health benefits and extra money in her pocket that came from quitting.
A variety of factors — including family, exercise, work programs and self-determination — helped her quit the habit, and Ghirardelli said she is thankful that the addiction no longer rules her life. While she had stopped smoking while pregnant with her daughter more than eight years ago, she returned to the habit after delivering. But an innocent comment from her daughter is what she said changed her life.
“I thank God for my daughter; I don’t know where I would be without her,” Ghirardelli said. “I also thank Blue Shield for the program that help me quit.”
The program she refers to started in 2006 when the Lodi campus designated itself as a smoke-free environment. The company offered its workers a class at a health fair and even paid employees to take the class to try to quit smoking. Although Ghirardelli said she had no intent to quit smoking, she attended the class more than two years ago and had a life-changing epiphany during it.
The moment happened on a rainy day when Ghirardelli was enjoying a cigarette during a break in the class. After returning home and reading her daughter, Randilee, a bedtime story, the child said she smelled like smoke.
Ghirardelli never smoked around her daughter and said that moment pushed her to work harder to break an addiction that physicians say can be as strong as one to heroin.
Despite one brief relapse in Reno last year, Ghirardelli has been smoke-free for two years. She didn’t use the help of products like nicotine gum or patches. Instead, she relied on support groups and self-determination. She also ate pistachios, gum and lollipops to help curb cravings. The shelling and consumption of the nut helped distract her, and the suckers substitutes for the feeling of having something in her hand as she drove to work.
More than anything, Ghirardelli said staying busy keeps her from wanting to light up.
“I keep myself busy so I have no time to think about it,” she said.
She is now a facilitator for Blue Shield’s quitting smoking class and teaches it three times a year. The lessons Ghirardelli passes on to her students will come in handy when she gets her husband to kick the habit after he turns 50 in February. He said he would work to quit after the milestone birthday, she said.
— Jordan Guinn/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Battling meth — and winning
Eight years ago, Cecilia Sharp was living a life chasing her drug addiction. Through help from the Salvation Army’s programs, today she is clean and is reaching her goals one step at a time. She says she couldn’t have done it without the support of her family and her higher power.
“I’ve seen people go through the program without it, and it isn’t easy,” she said.
At the age of 17, Sharp became addicted to methamphetamines. For eight years, her only goal was to reach the same high as the day before. She didn’t have any plans for her life and didn’t care.
“When you’re in addiction, that’s all life is about,” she explained. “There’s no drive or accomplishments in that life.”
In 2007, she was arrested and was sent to drug court. She did everything she was supposed to do, but then relapsed two weeks before her graduation. She was arrested again and made a deal in court, which included a long drug program. They were going to release her, she said, but didn’t want to risk going back out there again.
The court sent her to the Salvation Army. She went through a two-month pre-program and then a six-month drug program in Chico. After a two-week visit with family, she went back to the Salvation Army, where she entered the culinary school.
“I knew I wanted to go to the culinary school because I didn’t want to graduate without anything to fall back on,” she said.
Within the past year, Sharp, who is now 27, graduated from three programs. On her graduation day, she got an apartment with two roommates, who are both graduates of the program. Last week, she was drug tested and given a background check for a job at a local nursing home. She feels confident she may have the job.
These days, she feels like she can accomplish anything.
Sharp is hoping her story helps others who are fighting addiction to realize that it can be done. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard as long as you want it, she said.
“If you chase your recovery like you chase your addition, it’s endless,” she said.
— Pam Bauserman/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
A job for the holidays
After getting laid off from the construction industry a year ago, Galt resident Lori Holman is happy to have a job before the holidays. During her job search, she sent in many applications and refused to settle. She searched for a company with integrity that values goal-setting.
“I just kept looking for a good opportunity. I have a great attitude, so I kept striving until I found something that matched my goals,” Holman said.
She finally was hired on Nov. 9 as a branch office administrator for Edward Jones.
“It’s great. I get up every morning with a smile, and I know I’m going somewhere where they enjoy having me there,” she said.
Financial adviser Dale Immekus opened the office on Turner Road in September. He moved to Lodi from the Bay Area 13 years ago and worked with Edward Jones to open the branch.
He wanted to hire Holman because she was outgoing and could market Edward Jones in the community as well as talk to potential clients.
“We needed someone with a high level of energy who pays attention to detail,” he said.
For eight years, the 50-year-old Holman worked in the construction industry, handling all of the contracts for subcontractors on large projects. On the last project she worked on, the total cost was $480 million, and there were 111 subcontractors.
When the construction industry tanked, the company laid off almost half its employees.
“It was a money decision, not a personal decision. It was what they needed to do, as a company and corporation, you cannot spend more money than you are making,” she said.
During many of her job interviews, Holman was told she was over-qualified.
Steve, her husband of 22 years, helped draft her resume and scout for potential openings. He owns a company selling credit card equipment to businesses. Both of her children are grown.
“I would’ve had a lot more stress if the kids were little. It was a blessing to not have any additional pressure,” she said.
She kept herself motivated by doing cardio and home workouts with the Shaun Thompson Insanity Challenge.
“If we didn’t have to work, we say we’d work out more. I started being more consistent and doing a better job of it,” Holman said.
Holman also spent her days working with Roxy, her 14-month-old Jack Russell terrier, on agility training.
Holman also enjoys learning and said one of the best parts about her job is an extensive computer training course that will continue as long as she is employed with the company.
“(The company) likes people to set goals and create a plan and execute a plan. That’s what really caught my eye,” Holman said.
— Maggie Creamer/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
River Oaks student an inspiration
Few children are thankful to be able to go to school.
Ben Fagen is.
Even on the days when he’d rather stay in his pajamas and draw in his sketch book when the early morning temperatures approach freezing outside, the preteen is excited to learn new things and be with his friends at River Oaks Elementary.
“I seem to appreciate school more because I missed so much in third and fifth grade,” he said.
That’s because the sixth-grader has literally spent years in and out of the hospital. He and his family have traveled from Galt to San Francisco for countless treatments to remove a growing tumor inside the boy’s brain.
It all started when Ben began to have headaches. Chalking it up to migraines, the doctor prescribed medication.
Ben wasn’t getting better, and he was nauseous. So a CAT scan was performed and doctors discovered a 2-centimeter mass in his head, which was later removed.
He attended fourth grade, but at the beginning of his fifth-grade year, doctors discovered a spot on Ben’s spine, where it had been decided no chemotherapy would be administered.
As any parent can imagine, Ben’s parents are thankful for the days they have with their son.
Bill Fagen said he and his wife, Val, joke they could write a book because their family has experienced and learned so much about germ cell tumors in the last three years.
“We know what it feels like to have a seriously ill child. It obviously doesn’t feel good, but we often talk about how blessed we are in life,” Bill Fagen said.
After the discovery of the spot on Ben’s spine a year ago, the child underwent a few more rounds of chemo and received a stem cell transplant, with hopes of ridding his body of the “c-word.” His parents don’t like to call it “cancer” because of its connotations.
The couple counts among their blessings their children, including Ben’s older sister, Madison, who is a high school freshman.
“We are also blessed in a way that our perspective on life has changed. We seem to find simple pleasures in each day now rather than worry about the small stuff,” Bill Fagen said, adding that MRIs to monitor Ben’s nervous system continue to look positive.
Through it all, the family has hope and a sense of gratitude.
“We are trying to get the best out of our lives. We don’t want the challenges in life to get the best of us,” Bill Fagen said. “We have a lot to be thankful for, and we choose to get up when we fall. We are most thankful for this day that we can spend together. In a way, everyday is Thanksgiving for us.”
— Jennifer Bonnett/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Mom gets on her feet with the help of Lodi House
Sometimes, all you need is a helping hand.
For Shauna Phillips, the help came from Lodi House, in more ways than she ever expected.
“I have a lot to be thankful for. Lodi House helped me get on my feet,” Phillips said.
Before moving into Lodi House, Phillips struggled as a single mom working 20 hours a week for Macy’s Clinique Cosmetics. It wasn’t enough to support herself, her 9-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.
She didn’t know what else to do, so she went to Lodi House. On Aug. 17, she moved in with her daughter, Mariah Phillips, while her son, Dallas Sargent, stayed with his father in Arizona.
While at Lodi House, Phillips continued to work while she looked for a job that would offer more hours. She found her second job at Applebee’s.
She would return to Lodi House to do her nightly chores and eat dinner. They taught her how to save money by putting 80 percent of her paychecks into savings, so that she could afford to live after the program.
“Basically, they want to help you to get on your feet so you’re able to take care of yourself,” she said.
On Nov. 15, three months after she started the program, Phillips graduated from Lodi House.
Now, she has her own apartment in Lodi and two jobs that provide her with enough money to pay her bills. Family Resource and Referral also provides her with free daycare while she goes to work.
Though she is thankful for Lodi House and her new life, she is especially thankful that both of her children are now home with her.
— Lauren Nelson/Lodi Living Editor