CDC says Black Americans targeted by makers of menthol cigarettes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed new rules to ban the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes. But with the dangers of smoking so well-known, why the current focus on these specific tobacco products?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the tobacco industry is targeting Black Americans with menthol cigarette marketing through advertising, giveaways, special pricing, lifestyle branding, and event sponsorships of rap, hip-hop and jazz artists. The goal is to get Black young people addicted so they become customers for life.

“Nobody inhales cigarette smoke for the first time and thinks it feels good,” says Gina Cuyler, MD, FACP, vice president of health equity and community investments at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “That’s why tobacco companies seek to take the harsh edge off that initial experience so first-timers will continue to sample the product and get hooked.” The nicotine in cigarettes is highly addictive and adding menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat and airways, making the smoke feel easier to inhale.

Menthol is a chemical compound found naturally in peppermint and other similar plants. According to the CDC, some research shows that menthol cigarettes may be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes because menthol can change the way the brain registers the sensations of taste and pain.

So how successful are the marketing efforts to the Black Americans? More than 70 percent of Black young people ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and Black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

In 2019 and 2020, sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes made up 37 percent of all cigarette sales in the U.S.—the highest proportion in 55 years.

The CDC estimates 40 percent of excess deaths due to menthol cigarette smoking in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018 were Black Americans, despite Black Americans making up only about 12 percent of the U.S. population. Black Americans ages 18 to 49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than white Americans, and Black Americans ages 35 to 64 are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than white Americans.

“Projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show the death rate for Black Americans is generally higher than white Americans for heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, and diabetes,” says Cuyler. “Smoking contributes to each of those conditions.”

Evidence from other countries supports the public health benefits of banning menthol cigarettes. After a 2017 law prohibiting their sale was implemented in Ontario, Canada, adults who smoked menthol cigarettes reported high rates of quit attempts and quit successes.

“We need to educate the public, especially people of color, about this effort by tobacco companies to create nicotine addicts in our Black communities,” advises Cuyler. “All young people deserve to live tobacco-free lives!”

The New York State Smokers’ Quitline offers proven resources to help people who want to quit smoking. Call 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487) or go online to www.nysmokefree.com.

The Boilermaker Road Race: What keeps you running?

Whether it’s to carry on a family tradition, accomplish a personal goal, or to enjoy the amazing post-race party, every runner has their personal reason for participating in the Boilermaker Road Race.  From its humble beginning in 1978, the Boilermaker Road Race in Utica, NY has grown to become a premiere running event and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is proud to once again be the presenting sponsor of the 15K. 

There is certainly something special about this race.  Whether you are a seasoned runner or taking on the challenge of your first long-distance race, the Boilermaker creates lasting memories that bring runners back year after year and highlights the unique spirit of the Utica region.  We are proud to have over 30 Excellus BCBS employees participating in this year’s 15K and 5K events.  We will be there cheering them on every step of the way.

We were able to talk with several of our employees who are participating in the 15K and hear their Boilermaker story.

Husband and wife, Aileen Lyons and Zachary Nelson will be running the Boilermaker 15K for the first time this year.

Perennial runner Bob Bluey gears up for the 45th Boilermaker

With thousands of running races held each year in the United States, Robert (Bob) Bluey has no trouble choosing his favorite, the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, NY.  At the age of 72, Bob is part of a very special group of runners who have participated in every Boilermaker race since its inception in 1978. This long-time Mohawk Valley resident, grandfather of three, and proud Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Medicare member currently lives with his wife in New York Mills.

Bob Bluey, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Medicare member, runs up the Culver Ave hill as he trains for the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, NY. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

His love of running began in 1975, when at the age of 25 he decided to make his health a priority. “I attended a class about healthy lifestyles put on by the American Heart Association,” Bob recalls. “I took a 5 question heart health quiz and I had one of the highest [risk] scores in the class. I needed to change my lifestyle and become healthier.”  Bob’s mother had suffered from heart disease throughout his childhood, even spending time in the hospital. “As a kid it was scary,” remembers Bob.  Heart disease eventually took her life at the age of 62. “The instructor of the class talked about the importance of exercise especially if you have a family history of heart disease. It was a wake-up call.”

When putting his plan in place to get healthy, he started slowly with an easy run around the block. At that time running was just starting to become mainstream and the first sneakers designed specifically for running were introduced. “There weren’t a lot of running events to do at that time,” recalls Bob.  Then in 1978 he heard about a race happening in Utica. “The main reason I decided to run the first Boilermaker was because they were giving out free beer,” says Bob. “Every other race, you would get water, but the Boilermaker promised free beer!” 

The 15K distance was going to be a challenge for Bob, but his very good running friend Joe encouraged him to participate in some development runs and run a 15K race in Rome to prepare.  On race day Bob was ready. He remembers the crowd of around 800 people feeling enormous. “There were runners from Buffalo, Albany, New York City, and Canada. It was a big deal,” recalls Bob. “Finishing the race was pretty amazing. When I got to the end there were all of these people. Everyone stayed and talked about the race. It was great!”

Bob incorporates stretching into his fitness routine. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

As Bob gears up for his 45th race, he still carries with him the same enthusiasm for running.  “I try to get in a run at least 3 days a week,” says Bob. He usually does a 3.5-mile loop and starts adding miles to his runs in June in preparation for the Boilermaker, working his way up to 10 miles. In addition to running, Bob rounds out his fitness routine with 20 to 30 minutes of stretching and strength training on non-running days. “I’m so much healthier because of running,” says Bob. “Most people my age take some type of medication. The only pill I take is a multi-vitamin.”  Despite being active and maintaining a healthy weight, he understands his hereditary risk of heart disease can’t be changed. “Knowing that running has kept my body in shape, motivates me to keep going,” explains Bob.  He also notices the impact running has on his mental health. “I think being physically fit makes your mental health the best it can be,” says Bob.  He maintains a positive attitude about life and looks forward to opportunities to be active.

Having run every Boilermaker since the beginning, Bob has a perspective on the race that few people have.  He has seen it transform and grow over the years in a multitude of ways. “The first race was very laid back,” remembers Bob. “Cars were allowed on the course and there wasn’t much security even though there was a professional runner, Ric Rojas, in the race.”  Bob remembers a major turning point when Olympian and marathon record holder William (Bill) Rogers participated in the race in 1984. “It turned into a big-time race with professional runners from around the world,” says Bob. “The fact that the best in the world were coming in and you got to run with them was amazing! That doesn’t happen in any other sport.  I could never play baseball with Yankee Aaron Judge, but I could run with the pros.” What is even more amazing to Bob is after the race is over the professional runners come out in front of the stage and talk with people. “They are part of the comradery. It is a really nice thing that we’ve got here that no one else has,” says Bob.

He recalls seeing the crowd for the race grow bigger each year as well.  “Now there are people everywhere. I love seeing the crowd on the stretch coming down Champlain Avenue and onto Whitesboro Street.”

Personally, for Bob the meaning of the race has also evolved.  “Many of the people I’ve known since my early days of the race, mentors in running, friends who would take me to the starting line, have passed on,” says Bob.  “Now my family is what makes the race special.  I have relatives that come from all over for the race.”  He has family that joins him from as far away as California. It has turned into a weekend long family reunion with as many as 50 relatives showing up to run the iconic race. “They love it! We begin celebrating on Friday with different events – dinners, baseball games, the kid’s run. The whole family is here for the weekend,” explains Bob.

Passing on his passion for running is important. “My sons, nephews, grandkids, everyone sees that running is a healthy way of life,” explains Bob. “Even my older brother, who for the longest time thought I was insane, started to run races.”

Some may wonder what keeps Bob coming back to the Boilermaker year after year. Having run four marathons, including the New York City Marathon and the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C., Bob still thinks the Boilermaker is the best race around. “Over the years, I’ve seen people I work with and friends along the course in different places,” says Bob.  “I probably don’t go a half mile without seeing someone I know waving to me. I’ll see friends I worked with 30 years ago, and my family waiting for me on the Parkway.”  And he has no plans to stop. “It gets harder all the time, but I use my health as my motivation.”

Bob is looking forward to the 45th Boilermaker 15K Road Race presented by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield on July 10. “I can’t wait to get to the starting line, get back to normal, and see thousands of people.”

Bob chats with Excellus BCBS Regional President Eve Van de Wal at the iconic finish line of the Boilermaker 15K Road Race. (PHOTO BY NANCY L. FORD)

“We are excited to continue our support of the Boilermaker as the presenting sponsor of the 15K road race and cheer on runners like Bob,” says Eve Van de Wal, Excellus BCBS Utica regional president.  “This event showcases the spirit of our community, as athletes from around the world and in our neighborhoods gather together to enjoy this one-of-a-kind race. We are inspired everyday by Excellus BCBS members like Bob to further our mission of improving the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve. We can’t wait to be there at the finish line!”

Stop High Food Prices from Inflating Your Waistline

Filling our plates with healthy food and avoiding unhealthy temptations can be challenging, particularly as we see prices rise at the grocery store. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield wellbeing engagement consultant Pat Salzer offers some simple tips to help navigate the supermarket aisles and avoid the side dish of guilt. “Food is the spice of life, not the enemy,” she explains.

The key is to set yourself up for success. To do that, Pat advises using “the 4 P’s”: Plan, Purchase, Prep, and Plate.

Plan
“Plan your meals for the week, taking into account what items are on sale, as well as what is already in your kitchen,” says Pat. Planning will ensure a more productive trip to the store.

Purchase
When grocery shopping, stick to your list and avoid impulse purchases. “The grocery store is the gateway for what comes into your home—invite in healthy foods,” advises Pat. 

Prep
A little preparation can go a long way not only in stretching a dollar, but in ensuring that healthy options are readily available when hunger strikes. “Prep overnight oats for an easy grab-and-go breakfast in the morning,” suggests Pat. “Have some vegetables sliced up for a quick snack or faster meal prep.”

Plate
What you put on your plate matters. Load it with vegetables. Keep salad and vegetables on the table and main dishes on the stove. “When we go for seconds, we are more likely to grab the food within arm’s length rather than walking to the stove,” reminds Pat.

Keeping costs down
When it comes to keeping nutrition up and costs down, two main principles apply: extend the life of your groceries, and go for less expensive options when possible. Trail mix, for example, can be a pricey item. Instead, try a homemade option made from popcorn, cereal, nuts, raisins, and pretzels.

When cooking a meal, use what you already have on hand and make substitutions. “For example, green beans can be substituted for asparagus, and sweet potatoes for squash,” explains Pat. Extend the life of herbs by cutting the bottoms off and placing them in a glass of water.  Expensive greens, such as romaine, arugula, and escarole, can be cooked and stored in the fridge so they last longer. When it comes to saving money and eating healthily, the freezer is your friend. Freeze leftover items such as bananas, tomato paste, and cooked rice. “I often add frozen bananas to my oatmeal or whip them up into a frozen dessert,” says Pat. 

And, contrary to common belief, shopping the inner aisles is encouraged. There, you will find less expensive items with longer shelf lives and often packaged in bulk. Not all items in the inner aisles are healthy, but oats, canned vegetables, peanut butter and brown rice are good options. “Frozen and canned vegetables are processed at the peak of freshness and can have more nutrients than fresh vegetables that are past their prime,” explains Pat.

With a little extra effort, you can eat healthy foods and stick to your budget.

Boy giving a high five to doctor

A Day to Honor Doctors

On National Doctors’ Day and all year long, we are proud to celebrate the important work of physicians throughout our community and within our organization. This annual observance on March 30th honors physicians for the work they do for their patients, the communities they support, and our society. For many, it is not only a love of science and medicine that draws them into the profession, but an innate need to help, heal, and serve others. “We are fortunate to work with more than 18,500 physician partners throughout our regions to fulfill our organization’s mission of helping our communities live healthier and more secure lives through access to high-quality, affordable health care,” says Jim Reed, president and CEO of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Doctors’ Day is an opportunity to acknowledge the value our physician partners bring to our organization and our members.”

A strong relationship with community providers is essential to providing quality care to our members. Ninety-nine percent of providers within our service area are part of the Excellus BCBS provider network and 100 percent of hospitals are within the network. Through these relationships, we can implement effective programs such as accountable cost and quality agreements (ACQAs). These agreements focus on integral collaborations between our Health Plan and systems of doctors and hospitals. We work together to improve quality and keep costs down by identifying opportunities for efficiency, closing gaps in care, and helping to manage chronic conditions among members.

In addition to our work with outside providers, within our organization we have a team of 21 clinicians who serve as medical directors and are key to ensuring our organization manages cost, quality, and care for our members. They seek out innovative opportunities to engage our members in enhancing their health and wellbeing. This dedicated group of physicians serves as advisors and leaders for dozens of initiatives to support our organizational goals and improve our service to our members.

“Our medical directors are proud to actively collaborate with our provider partners, seeking their input and feedback in areas such as medical policy, quality improvement and medical management,” says Stephen Cohen, MD, SVP and corporate medical director. “This collaboration leads to improved member care and healthier communities.”

Happy Doctors’ Day to physicians everywhere and thank you for your continued commitment, compassion and dedicated care for others. 

AEDs, CPR, and how you can save a life

By Lorna Fitzpatrick, MD

You’ve seen signs posted in public places that an AED is on the premises. AED stands for automated external defibrillator — or, more accurately, semi-automated since a human operator is needed. Did you know that the purpose of an AED is to stop the heart, rather than start it? More on that later. First, let’s clarify two common cardiac terms.

A “heart attack” is a plumbing issue — an artery that brings blood to the heart is blocked. Victims are usually conscious, and while they need medical attention quickly, an AED is not needed because the heart is beating, and the victim is breathing.

“Sudden cardiac arrest” is an electrical issue and occurs when the heart’s electrical system unexpectedly malfunctions. Without warning, the victim collapses and stops breathing. The heart is electrically active but beating chaotically and unable to pump blood to the brain and other organs. Medical attention is needed immediately, or the victim will die. The technical term for this is ventricular fibrillation (V-fib or VF). More than 300,000 Americans outside of hospitals die each year from sudden cardiac arrest, according to the American Heart Association. With V-fib, immediate CPR and ready access to an AED is the only hope while 911 is called.

Sudden cardiac arrest may be reversed if CPR is immediately performed, and an AED is used within minutes to shock the heart into stopping its chaotic rhythm. Once the heart is stopped, its own natural pacemaker may re-establish a life-sustaining pulse. AED trainers compare the administration of a heart-stopping shock to unplugging a home computer when it’s acting up, letting it sit for a minute, and then plugging it back in to reboot.

Underwriting grants from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield have placed AEDs into service across New York state. These AEDs issue spoken commands to coach even an untrained layperson in their use, and also in the proper administration of CPR. If the device detects a shockable rhythm, it will provide voice instruction on how to deliver an electrical charge. If it doesn’t detect a shockable rhythm, it will not allow a shock to be administered. The absence of any cardiac electrical activity is commonly called a “flat line.” For those victims, CPR offers the only chance for survival until medical professionals arrive.

Now that you know more about CPR and AEDs, your homework is to become more than an untrained layperson. Go online to RedCross.org or Heart.org and find a CPR class near you.

Lorna Fitzpatrick, MD is vice president medical affairs and medical director at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

A caregiver holding someone's hands

Why I Will Be in Line for A Flu Shot This Year

For many years, Ann Himmler of Monroe County, was required to get a flu shot every year because she was a Hospice volunteer. “I was 100 percent on board with the requirement,” said Ann, “because in addition to the patients I would be spending volunteer time with, my family had also been providing care to a senior parent with compromised health issues who lived in our home.”

Ann knew that older adults and people with certain medical conditions, including a weakened immune system, are among those who are at high risk of serious complications from the flu. “It was important that our entire family receive the flu shot as well, not only to protect ourselves from getting sick, but also reduce the risk of transmitting the flu to our relative who depended on us for their care,” said Ann.

How Dangerous A Virus Can Be

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of how dangerous a virus can be and how important it is to have an effective vaccine. “In 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 39 million and 56 million people got sick with the flu and between 24,000 and 62,000 people died of flu complications,” said Dr. Stephen Cohen, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield senior vice president and corporate medical director.

For the very young, the very old, women who are pregnant, and individuals with compromised immune systems including many patients on chemotherapy, catching the flu can place them at high risk for serious complications, including death. “Fortunately, we have a flu vaccine in hand for this year’s strains that can provide a level of immunity or reduce the severity if you do get sick,” said Dr. Cohen.

Don’t Wait to Get a Flu Shot

The flu vaccine is now available at most major pharmacies, many physician practices, and other sites in our community. With rare exceptions, the CDC recommends it for everyone ages 6 months and older. Most health insurance plans cover the flu vaccine in full, and you usually don’t need an appointment to receive it at a pharmacy.

“The flu season will last until May, but it is important to get vaccinated sooner than later to help establish a level of immunity in our community,” said Dr. Cohen. “It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection.”

Older adults should consult with their health care provider to see if they recommend the high-dose flu vaccine that is approved for people ages 65 years and older. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that the high-dose vaccine was 24-percent more effective in preventing flu in adults 65 years and older relative to a standard-dose vaccine.

Keeping Our Community Healthy

Because of COVID-19, it’s even more important to do everything that you can to keep yourself and your family healthy this flu season. “That’s why even though it’s not required for me now, I will be in line for a flu shot again this year,” Ann said.

 

To view or download an educational flu poster, visit ExcellusBCBS.com.

Small Steps to Prevent Big Falls: Protecting Older Adults from Injury

I had a reunion of sorts with some old friends from high school. Once we adjusted to seeing each other as “seasoned” adults, we caught up on the past 30 plus years since graduation.  We chatted about the highlights: families, careers, travel, and memories from high school.  As we settled in, our conversation turned toward our current stage of life: retirement, grandchildren and aging parents.

Since my parents passed away fairly young, I haven’t dealt with the caregiving challenges and issues that impact many older adults.  As I listened to the conversations, I was amazed that every person talked about a parent who had fallen and the tremendous impact it had on their family.

The Leading Cause of Injury Among Older Adults

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In upstate New York, more than 1 in 4 adults over age 65 reporting falling at least once, according to research from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

View ‘Protect Yourself From Falls’ infographic

Even more eye opening was to hear that my friends’ parents had been hurt or had to enter a nursing home because of the fall. Unfortunately, this is quite common.  In fact, research shows that 60 percent of seniors in New York state who were hospitalized for a fall ended up in a nursing home.

Taking Steps to Avoid Falls

But falling doesn’t have to be an accepted part of the aging process. There are simple things you can do to help reduce the risk of a fall and promote independent and active lifestyles among older adults.

One friend actively involved in the care of her aging father shared her strategies to help him avoid a fall. She installed grab bars in his shower and removed throw rugs to help him avoid slipping and falling.  She routinely de-clutters his home to reduce his risk of tripping.  It helps that she’s a nurse, and assists her dad in managing his medications. There are certain medications, such as sedatives or some over the counter drugs, which can affect balance.

Since I’m not getting any younger, I’m taking note.  Thankfully, I’ve always been active.  In the past few years, I’ve become a big fan of yoga, which has helped me improve my flexibility and balance.  Exercise is a good investment because physical fitness can help prevent the incidence of falls and minimize potential injury.  I don’t want to be a statistic (not a bad one, anyway), so added to my long-term to do list is: continue to stay active and clean up the mess in my house.

To learn more about preventing falls, talk with your doctor or visit ExcellusBCBS.com. You might want to explore local falls prevention classes to help the older adult in your life stay healthy.  Here are two organizations that offer classes in upstate New York:

Lifespan (Rochester area)

Building Better Balance (Broome County)

Note: Classes may be on hold or held virtually due to the pandemic.

5 Ways to Reduce Caregiver Stress

When I was in high school, there were several years where my mom devoted herself to taking care of my grandparents. We lived in Syracuse, but my grandparents lived in Watertown, so my mom would regularly travel the hour or so north up I-81 to be with them. Back then, and for years after, she would often say how glad she was to be able to be there for her parents during that time. Despite the gratification caregiving brought her, I know it was hard for her to balance helping her parents while taking care of me and my sisters and working a full-time job.

Caregiving can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be very stressful. You may be experiencing caregiver stress if you’re feeling overwhelmed, alone, or are often worried. Whether you’re providing hands-on care or helping from afar, here are some tips from fellow caregivers to help reduce caregiver stress.

Take a break

Recognize that providing care for someone is an important job. Like all jobs, it’s important to seek a well-deserved break when you can. Don’t be shy about asking others for help. Jan Caster, a caregiver from Onondaga County, says that when someone offers to help, it’s important to “be specific about what the individual can do for you. Suggest choices like respite care, preparing meals or providing transportation.”

If you’re a long-distance caregiver, offer what you can to help the caregiver who is local. You can help research community resources or even give a small gift card to help give the other caregiver a break. That kind of help can be “a better gift than any ‘thing’,” says Jan.

There are also more formal respite services available to help give you a break and reduce caregiver stress. These services include:

  • In-home care: regular or periodic in-home care can provide someone to help with personal care, providing medical services and respite care.
  • Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE): these programs provide both medical and social services to individuals who live in the community.
  • Adult Day Care Centers: provide your loved one with some socialization while giving you an opportunity to work, run errands or take a break.
  • Nursing homes: many communities have nursing homes or other residential care facilities that can provide short-term overnight care if you need to go out of town.

Check with your local Office for the Aging and NY Connects to learn more about these and other respite services available in your community.

Communication is Key

Having open and honest conversations with your loved one can help to take the burden off of you, the caregiver. It’s helpful to understand the wishes of your loved one and make sure everyone is on the same page. Jim Redmond, a caregiver from Monroe County, says that when you’re a caregiver “you may need to have difficult conversations with your loved one…but you can still maintain a level of respect and help them preserve as much of their independence as possible. Part of having a difficult conversation is helping your loved one determine realistic goals based on their condition and the way it is changing.” Resources like AARP offer tips for having those difficult conversations.

It’s also important to establish open communication with other family members. “We have an on-going group text with my siblings and our spouses,” says Jim, “It helps everyone get the same information at the same time”. It’s one way to include everyone, even if they live out of town.”

Do Something You Enjoy

When you’re caring for someone else, you often prioritize your loved one’s health over your own. It’s important to remember to take care of your own health too to help you provide your loved one with the best care.

While it can be hard to do, Jan says it’s also helpful to “do something for yourself that you’ll look forward to.” You could watch a movie or take an exercise class. Jan enjoys a yoga class as one way to take time for her health. Finding time to rest or nap is important too, as many caregivers struggle with sleep. “Sleep is not overrated!” adds Jan.

Seek Support

Feeling isolated can be a challenge for caregivers. When you’re feeling alone, talking with others can help you to cope, whether it’s with a counselor or with a few good friends. My aunts were a main source of support for mom. They were helping to take care of my grandparents too. I remember the long phone calls my mom would have with them late into the night. Like with many of life’s challenges, it helps so much just to know you’re not alone.

Support groups are another great resource for caregivers. They can provide a safe space for venting frustration or sharing struggles. To find an in-person or online support group, contact your local Office for the Aging.

Keep Things in Perspective

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when caregiving, whether it’s with your loved one or with the situation in general. Jim says it helps to “maintain perspective” and remember that “everyone will have good days and bad days.” Many fellow caregivers say that when providing care for a loved one, it’s helpful to focus on what’s really important and not sweat the small stuff.

When all else fails, take deeps breaths and give yourself credit for doing one of the toughest jobs that there is. Jan adds, “Trust yourself when it comes to your loved one’s care – you know them better than anyone.”

Teresa’s Grateful for Her Gift of Life

After Teresa Arnold’s 12-hour liver transplant surgery, her doctor told her husband, “It’s amazing she was still alive. Her liver was a small, hard rock.”

Teresa emerged from the operation looking pink after years of having a yellow cast to her skin.

Her husband, David, burst into tears of relief. He had been her primary caregiver for the previous two years while working full-time.

“It was a crazy, crazy time,” Teresa said of her five years waiting on the transplant list. Liver failure had caused her to develop encephalopathy. The brain disease not only turned her sleep/wake cycle upside down, but also adversely affected her memory and balance.

Teresa, a registered nurse, believes she contracted hepatitis C during the 1970s before the health care profession adopted universal precautions.

At 3 a.m., two days after Christmas 2006, she received a call informing her that a donor’s liver was available. Soon, she and her husband were on the road to Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital for the surgery.

Teresa checked out of the hospital in a record seven days post-op. Although she would undergo yearlong chemotherapy for hepatitis C, she felt well enough after three months of recuperation at home to take on a new job. In 2007, she started working at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in Syracuse as a Utilization Review Coordinator.

“I love my job. I still get to be a nurse,” she said. Until her illness forced her to quit, Teresa had been nursing director at Syracuse Community Health Center. She also had worked in a Wyoming hospital for 10 years before returning to upstate New York with her husband and son. Her son now lives in Oregon with his family.

Her current position is Care Coordinator.

“It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had,” said Teresa.

How do I give back?

In the years since her surgery, Teresa often has wondered why she — of the thousands of people waiting for a donor organ — was lucky enough to receive a 40-year-old man’s liver.  Through the transplant coordinator, she wrote a thank-you letter to his family, but didn’t hear back.

She contemplated how she could repay the gift the universe had bestowed on her.

A Buddhist, Teresa believes in the interconnectedness of all life. She turned to her teacher for answers.

“What am I supposed to do now that I’ve been given this gift? How do I give back?”

Her teacher answered, “Just live.”

Organ donation statistics

Here are some organ donation statistics provided by Mary Jane Milano, Community Development Manager at the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network. The Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network is a nonprofit, federally designated organ procurement organization that serves 20 counties in the Finger Lakes, Central New York and upstate New York regions.

 

In the United States

  • Every 9 minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list.
  • On average, 17 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
  • More than 5,600 people died in 2020 while waiting for an organ transplant (or within 30 days of leaving the list for personal or medical reasons).
  • There were more than 12,500 deceased donors in 2020, a 6 percent increase from the year before.
  • One donor hero can save up to eight lives through organ donation and could improve the lives of up to 75 more through tissue and cornea donation.

Approximate Waitlists (the number of people waiting for a life-saving organ transplant

  • National: 108,000
  • New York state: 8,880
  • Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network service area: 860 (listed at Strong Memorial Hospital or SUNY Upstate Medical University)

Donor registry enrollment rates (the percentage of people registered as organ, eye and tissue donors)

  • United States: 60%
  • New York state: 43%
  • Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network area: 56%

The only restriction to signing up for organ donation in New York state is that enrollees must be at least 16 years old.

If it’s your wish to pass life on to others through organ donation, you can easily enroll through the electronic New York State Donate Life Registry.

Visit DonorRecovery.org to learn more about organ donation in New York state. If you live outside of New York state, visit OrganDonor.gov to learn more about organ donation in your state.

Sources:

  • Health Resources and Services Administration / U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
  • United Network of Organ Sharing
  • New York State Donate Life Registry