Grand Forks woman advocates for organ donation, celebrates her 99-year-old-liver
On April 23, 2006, Sally Jacobson, then 61, underwent a liver transplant operation. The liver she received came from an 82-year-old donor. Now 99 years old, the transplanted liver is still going strong.
GRAND FORKS – Sally Jacobson celebrated a birthday last month, but it wasn’t for herself. It was for her liver.
On April 23, 2006, Jacobson — then 61 — underwent a liver transplant. The organ came from an 82-year-old donor.
Now 99 years old, the transplanted liver is still going strong. For the last several years, Jacobson has been doing everything she can to get people to “check the box” when it comes to organ donation, no matter their age.
“Everything that I do is honoring all donors and urging people to check the box,” said Jacobson, who will turn 78 in a few weeks.
Deciding to be an organ donor is easy. It starts at the local driver’s license office — when people return to renew their license, they may take it for granted that permission to be a donor carries over. It doesn’t, and that is one of Jacobson's main talking points when she speaks publicly about organ donation.
“You have to do it every time,” she said.
And Jacobson gets around to speak. Most recently, she was accompanied by Mayor Brandon Bochenski to high schools in the area to speak to the students about being organ donors. They hit other locations in Grand Forks as well, including Altru Hospital and the Motor Vehicle Department. For Jacobson, the visits are all about getting out the word: check the box.
In observance of Jacobson’s efforts, Bochenski signed a proclamation dedicating April 2022 Donate Life Month, a local nod to the national nonprofit organization LifeSource, which coined April as National Donate Life month in 2003.
In 2005 Jacobson noted her health began to change. She felt increasingly tired, but still wanted to continue working at a local insurance agency, where she had just received a promotion. Her condition worsened over the months – at one point she had several liters of fluid removed from her chest cavity at Altru Hospital. Her local care team sent her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Ultimately, she learned she had chronic autoimmune hepatitis, which in turn caused cirrhosis of the liver. She was placed on the transplant list, and said she only had a few weeks to live when her doctor informed her a liver was available. The only thing: it was from an 82-year-old man.
Jacobson said she didn’t wait to decide. She told her doctor – the only surgeon in the nation at that time who would transplant older organs – that she’d accept the liver even though the results of the operation at that time were unclear.
“He said it might give me a couple years,” Jacobson said. “Here I am at 16 years!”
According to Kamrin Macki, a gastroenterology nurse practitioner at Altru and part of Jacobson’s care team, transplanting older organs or organs affected with a health condition, is now more common. Surgeons are able to transplant a liver with hepatitis C, for example, because the condition can be treated after the operation.
“Transplants have definitely evolved,” she said.
In 2021 there were about seven patients from the region who had liver transplants, Macki said. They are sent from Altru to either the Mayo Clinic or the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Patients can wait on the list for years before getting matched with a liver – priority depends on the patient’s condition, according to their Model for End-Stage Liver Disease score.
The three leading diagnoses for liver transplants in the region are cirrhosis related to alcohol, hepatitis C and fatty liver disease, Macki said. The latter ailment is set to become the leading cause for liver transplants by 2024, and Macki said she is concerned that wait times for organs will increase.
That means people need to take care of their livers by moderating alcohol consumption, getting regular exercise and eating well by avoiding processed foods. Macki said she recommends the Mediterranean diet, a diet based around whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts.
Awareness raising efforts
Over the years Jacobson has worked to raise awareness of organ donation. In 2012 she received the LifeSource Volunteer of the Year award for her efforts. She speaks wherever she can, in schools, churches and elsewhere, and she introduced her transplant surgeon at a medical conference one year – he told her he wanted to see her when her liver turned 100.
In 2014, Jacobson helped raise $30,000 for Altru Health System’s Our Living Legacy donor wall, a structure commemorating people who have donated organs. She spoke at the dedication of the wall, a particularly poignant moment for her, as her granddaughter, who died as an infant, is memorialized there.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily put a stop to in-person events, she turned to Zoom, the online meeting software so many people have come to be familiar with.
As well as urging people to let their family members know their wishes about being an organ donor, she stays on topic with those she meets: “One of my main messages is you're not too old to be a donor,” she said.
According to LifeSource, in the first quarter of this year, 2,978 people were on a waiting list for an organ transplant in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Of those, more than 2,500 people are waiting for livers. Nationally, more than 106,000 people are on the list, with more than 89,000 people in need of a liver.
People in North Dakota and Minnesota can indicate they wish to be organ donors when they get a driver’s license or state ID card, or when they renew those documents.
In North Dakota, registering to become a donor can be done online at www.dot.nd.gov/divisions/driverslicense/donorregistry.htm .
In Minnesota, people can register online at www.donatelifemidwest.org/mn/.