It has been four years since Mayor Valerie Thomerson received a kidney transplant and she says its been a journey of truly understanding thanks. (Photo by Ben Felder)
Mayor Valerie Thomerson has an evolving perspective of what it means to be thankful.
As the recipient of a kidney transplant she believes she is on “borrowed time” and calls the past four years a journey of growth that has given her a new vision of what it means to have faith, hope and love.
But, most of all, she says she has learned what it means to be thankful and that part of being truly thankful is a willingness to give back to others.
Thomerson has been a polarizing figure at times during her first year as mayor, as is often the case for political leaders in small towns like Piedmont. But beyond the decisions she has made and the policy she has enacted, Thomerson said she is motivated by a desire to give back.
“It’s part of what made me (run for mayor),” Thomerson said. “Regardless of what I do for the city – good, bad or indifferent – it’s about trying to share something that Sarah gave me.”
Sarah is a name that evokes tears from Thomerson nearly every time she speaks it. Sarah Gigstad, the mother of two children and a fellow church member at Deer Creek Church of Christ, was in many ways nothing more than a fellow church member for Thomerson just a few years ago. But
the two actually shared a connection that went much further than just sitting a few pews apart during Sunday service.
Both Thomerson and Gigstad had fathers that had retired from the Air Force. Both spent part of their childhood in Japan and had even attended the same school in Germany. Their two paths finally crossed in Oklahoma and Thomerson doesn’t believe there is any coincidence to it.
“I love to tell people that Sarah has followed me my entire life,” Thomerson said. “It’s too ironic to be just coincidence. I truly believe God allowed her to catch up with me when I needed her the most.”
A changed life
Four years ago Thomerson and her husband were living in Texas but were in the process of moving back to Oklahoma. An interstate move, new house and new job had Thomerson expecting some pretty big changes, but nothing like what was about to take place.
Over the span of several weeks Thomerson began to notice some changes in her health. She was growing more fatigued, something she originally chalked up to being older. But the list of symptoms she was experiencing just grew bigger. Thomerson was lucky to get more than two straight hours of sleep at night, she had nearly lost her entire appetite and felt like everything had a metal taste, her memory became extremely short-term and she would experience dizzy spells and constantly feel lightheaded.
One night the pain became just too much and after rocking in the fetal position for several hours, Thomerson pulled herself out of bed at 4 a.m. and drove to the emergency room.
The RN couldn’t believe Thomerson’s blood pressure reading and had even thought the machine might be broken. But her blood pressure was extremely high and a doctor felt her symptoms warranted a visit from a renal specialist that very quickly determined Thomerson was suffering from End-Stage Renal Disease. Thomerson’s kidneys were shutting down and the outlook was grim.
“We don’t know why my kidneys failed,” Thomerson said. “Just six month earlier I was perfectly healthy and everything appeared fine.”
The search for a donor
The next day Thomerson underwent surgery to have a catheter put in for dialyses, and in what seemed like an instant, her life was completely changed.
“It was certainly life changing,” Thomerson said. “I finally decided to resign from my job because of my health. I couldn’t do the 40 hours a week.”
After consulting with doctors, specialists and her family, Thomerson made the decision to pursue a kidney transplant. There was some hope that a new kidney might work but the diagnosis was still grim. When Thomerson moved to Piedmont during the ordeal the home she and her husband had built was specially designed to allow easy access for a wheel chair, a preemptive move in case a life of dialyses was in Thomerson’s future.
Members of Thomerson’s family performed tests to determine if they were a match but the right kidney was never found. Medicare covered the testing but only allowed one test at a time, making the ordeal especially trying.
“It was amazing just by sharing my story the number of people that offered to donate,” Thomerson said.
One person that offered to donate was the closing agent on Thomerson’s house, but a test resulted in yet another negative match.
“We all struggled because we just didn’t know if I was going to make it,” Thomerson said. “Faith plays a huge part of that, at least it did for me. When I went into the hospital I really felt like God had a plan for me. I just knew God wasn’t done with me and I knew there was something that I needed to do, and maybe I was being naive, but I really felt like I would make it.”
As Thomerson continued to search for a match and shared her story with others, Gigstad woud come up to her at church and ask when she was going to let her test.
“Sarah would always come up to me and say ‘when are you going to test me, when are you going to test me?’” Thomerson said. “I asked Sarah why she would want to do this and her answer never changed: ‘God gave me two healthy kidneys and you need one.’”
After continuing to ask about testing Thomerson finally provided Gigstad with the number to call about taking the test. Gigstad got tested and it was determined she was a match.
“She had two small children and she risked her life for me?” Thomerson said. “That’s beyond humbling.”
Both Thomerson and Gigstad underwent surgery and doctors said they couldn’t have asked for better results. What normally takes 45 minutes to remove a kidney took just 13, and once the kidney was placed inside Thomerson it was immediately accepted.
“She had exactly what I needed, no more, no less,” Thomerson said.
A new meaning
Of course transplant surgery is no easy fix and a long road to recovery follows with the risk that the new organ might be rejected. Thomerson was filled with plenty of emotions following the surgery but she particularly remembers a night in the hospital when she was awake with thoughts about what God had planned for her life. Thomerson’s mind was spinning about the meaning God might have for her new life and a nurse walked in and ended up offering some life-changing advice.
“(The nurse) told me maybe (God) doesn’t want something for me to do but maybe I was going through this to help someone else,” Thomerson said. “I was like, that’s it. Ever since then I have done a lot of speaking for a kidney organization and tried to find ways to help others that are going through what I went through.”
Thomerson believes that her faith has played an important part in her recovery and says the experience was one that gave her a new perspective on almost every aspect of life.
“I don’t see how people could get through (this) without that faith,” Thomerson said. “I have truly learned the value of faith, hope and love…to a far greater level than I would have ever considered. Faith kept me alive…hope was hoping I get a kidney and that I am doing the right things to stay alive, and then there is that faith that sooner or later God is going to give me what I need. And he did.”
Thomerson and Gigstad share a connection beyond a kidney and the two have become close friends over the years. They have even teamed up for speaking engagements about organ donation and what it is like for both the donor and the recipient.
“I feel Sarah with me,” Thomerson said. “It’s an emotional connection, but I do feel Sarah with me. It is my kidney, but it is and it isn’t.”
Since her surgery on June 18, 2007, Thomerson said she has experienced a lot of emotions and has even just recently begun to gain a new perspective on what it means to be thankful.
“When you get the transplant you are thankful, but honestly, it’s not the same…you are still in survival mode,” Thomerson said. “You are in shock that you actually got a transplant, so you are on this elevated high. The first year after the transplant is about getting your health back. There is such a sense of obligation, at least there was for me, to take care of yourself; to do things just right.
“The second year you start to breathe a little bit easier and that thankfulness level rises.”
Part of Thomerson’s sense of thankfulness comes from the gift of a new life. She says her enjoyment of little things is much higher and her perspective on what is truly important has also changed.
“It makes me appreciative to know that I am here in this world to enjoy a sunrise, to enjoy a sunset, to enjoy the laughter of children,” Thomerson said. “I can enjoy another anniversary with my husband and the wind in my face on a motorcycle.
“The whole idea of a transplant is for you to go back and live your life, but for me it’s so much more. Every day I live past that transplant is borrowed time and it is a gift.”
Thomerson said her renewed perspective has even transferred into her work as mayor.
“Sometimes I shrug my shoulders and say how does that really fit in the big picture?” Thomerson said. “Yes, I can get upset and stress about things, but it’s not a life or death issue. But I still want to do my best and I still want to do what’s right.”
Thomerson said she has also grown more patient and picks her battles more carefully.
“It’s helped me to pick which battle to fight and which battle to let go,” Thomerson said. “I think that’s probably one of the best gifts this transplant has given me; figuring out what’s truly important.
“So many petty things that go on in our world are simply not important…so why should I let that affect the joy of my day?”