Taking a gamble

Many people take their lives for granted. Few understand just how good they have it until they that life is under threat. But, by then, it is usually too late. However, for West Fenwick Island resident Ann Kerns Bowley and her family, each day is a gratifying miracle, another reason to be thankful.

Earlier this year, Bowley underwent surgery designed to save her life, decades after she was diagnosed with intestinal pseudo-obstruction, Addison’s disease, pernicious anemia, colitis, colonic inertia and small bowel dismotility.

For the past 19 years, she has endured many medical complications and lengthy hospitalizations, with a total of 18 operations. And at the end of February 2008, a 17.5-hour multi-visceral transplant procedure, led by Dr. Kareem Abu-Elmagd at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), replaced her stomach, small intestine, pancreas and duodenum, to ensure continuation of her life, though the suffering is far from over.

The medications and treatments she receives have caused her system to be immuno-suppressed and unable to produce sufficient red blood cells to ward off infection, forcing her to stay home, away from large groups of people.

Although her condition will improve, Bowley will forever be tied to UPMC for continued treatment of her disease and future medical conditions.

And despite Bowley being insured, there are many financial burdens of the procedures that are not covered. Bowley has not spent an entire month out of the hospital since August 2006, when her body, stressed and tired, collapsed, along with her entire digestive system. She was fed intravenously and plagued by constant infection.

“It came on unexplained,” Bowley recalled. “The doctors never really found a reason why my digestive system failed and the disease worsened.”

It began with a sharp pain in her side, and before long, her stomach had extended and twisted like a balloon, preventing anything from passing through. Doctors at Johns Hopkins, during clinical trials, found her digestive system was stopping and starting.

Bowley’s condition is a rare one, with only 50 diagnoses each year, 70 percent of which are treated at UPMC. Her operations to treat the condition began in 1989, only eight months after she married her husband, Dennis, in Las Vegas on April Fool’s Day.

“We used to joke that we were fools, taking a gamble,” she said.

Bowley’s life seemed to teeter on a roll of the dice when she was placed on the national transplant list in 2007. Fortunately, luck was on her side, as she received a call only six days later with news of an organ donation that would completely replace multiple failing organs in her body. And the organs were flying in from none other than Sin City.

“I realized then that God must have a sense of humor,” she said.

Advancements in medicine over the years have helped extend Bowley’s life. The surgeries she has undergone over the past few years were not even possible when she was first diagnosed.

Since the February multi-organ transplant, Bowley has made quite an impressive recovery.

“There was a slight rejection,” she said, “but now, I’m doing great. The doctors are doing what they can now to help wean me off of some of the medications, and I definitely don’t want to worry about another transplant.”

Bowley said she is thankful for the team that has given her a second chance at life.

“It’s really amazing what they have done at UPMC,” she said. “There were always a lot of doctors on hand during the procedure, and the two surgeons stayed by my side the entire time. Everything is very individualized and personable there. No two patients are treated the same.”

Bowley’s story has inspired everyone who’s taken the time to hear it, but those who are closest to her have been hit the hardest.

“It puts you through a lot,” said her oldest sister, Linda Ringer. “It hasn’t always been easy. It’s tough seeing someone you love go through these struggles and feel so helpless. She started with her good years and, even when things turned worse, they would seem to be smooth for a while. But the last few years have been extremely difficult.”

“When we got the call that Ann was fully approved for the transplant, there were a lot of mixed emotions,” said Ringer. “It was definitely a scary time, but we were all excited for her at the same time.”

Today, Bowley and her family continue to raise money and awareness for the cause.

“I want to educate people on the importance of transplants and organ donations,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my surgery. It’s a matter of teaching people the importance of these conditions and what they mean in different states. To some people, an organ donation is just an indication on your driver’s license that shows you agree to have your body cut up when you die. Actually, it means a second chance for someone else.”

A fundraising campaign has been established in Bowley’s name through the National Transplant Assistance Fund (NTAF) to help with the out-of-pocket expenses and non-covered costs that go along with her treatment. Ringer leads the fund, organizing a variety of events.

A spaghetti dinner was held in May, and later this summer, on Aug. 16, the Ocean City Elks Golf Association will host a golf outing, dinner and auctions to benefit the campaign as well. The golf events will give participants a chance to win awards in a number of events, while live and silent auctions will put a variety of prizes up for grabs, including golf packages, cruises and European getaways.

The campaign, administered by NTAF, is a tax-deductible, non-profit organization. Additional businesses are welcome to contribute and sponsor the event. For more information for businesses and guests, contact Bowley at (302) 988-1083 or annbowley@yahoo.com or reach Ringer at (301) 467-0011 or Linda195720769@yahoo.com. For information concerning the golf tournament, questions can be directed to club employee Larry VanSickler at (301) 213-9099.

For more information about NTAF, visit their Web site at www.transplantfund.org.

With more than $7,000 raised from the May spaghetti dinner, Bowley is hoping the golf tournament will host an even larger crowd.

“The response from everybody has just been overwhelming,” said Bowley. “It’s amazing what people have done. A lot of them tell me they never knew you could live under my conditions with what I’ve gone through. A lot of them are usually in awe, but the support and understanding is wonderful. I’m thankful for my friends and family and their friends and families who have opened their hearts to me. I wouldn’t be here without their support and prayers.”