SMC — Molly Pearce and her boyfriend Corey Eaker, both 24, have their future planned out.
The couple, who celebrate their fourth anniversary on Feb. 1, talk about the cruises they want to go on, the trips they want to take — Australia and New York are on the itinerary — and the two children, Peyton and Colt, they want to have.
What might be the normal day dreams of a happy young couple is for Eaker and Pearce an act of hope.
Pearce has been fighting for her life in the University of Nebraska Medical Center since October waiting for a miracle. She needs four organs — kidney, pancreas, small intestine and liver — all from the same donor, and she needs them soon.
Pearce was born needing an intestinal transplant. Today, that would be a matter of course for an infant born in a hospital, said her mother, Melisa Pearce, but 24 years ago the methods did not yet exist.
Pearce would have to wait until she was 13 years old to get that organ, which meant that for most of her life she was stuck on a limited diet of liquids and some white fish, her mother said.
Before the intestine, however, Pearce would experience the first of two life-altering medical mistakes. The first occurred when she was 12. A doctor prescribed her a type of antibiotic to take home that was meant solely for in-patient care, and the pills were several times the strength needed for someone of her size.
The drugs killed her kidney, said her mother, Melisa Pearce, and severely retarded Molly’s road to recovery.
Pearce first received the intestine, which allowed her to, for the first time, eat rich, solid foods.
“At first I went pretty crazy on hamburgers,” Pearce said. “Later I absolutely fell in love with sushi, partially due to Corey because he loved sushi and started taking me all the time.”
The doctors hoped that improved nutrition would help their young patient and heal her damaged kidney, but it was too much. In 2007, Pearce’s mother donated a kidney to her daughter.
It changed her life, Melisa Pearce said.
“I woke up and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what happened to me,’” Melisa Pearce said. “Then I looked over and she was up with earbuds in her ears, stunningly beautiful, cross legged on her bed listening to music and typing on her laptop. She had bounced out of the surgery.”
By both of their accounts, the next two years were the best of Pearce’s life.
She recovered and moved from her home in Colorado to a cute apartment in Santa Monica, where she attended Santa Monica College first with the hope of transferring to USC to study screenwriting and later began studying to become a veterinary technician.
Her horse, Bali, came with her from Colorado.
She took a communications class and met a talkative young man named Corey Eaker. They would chat throughout the class, she said, and he eventually was kicked out by the teacher for being too much of a disturbance.
From Eaker’s point of view, however, it was less a disturbance and more a plan of action.
“I saw her and I said, ‘I need to date that girl,’” he said.
Pearce tried not to burden Eaker with her illness, but on their first Valentine’s Day together, she got badly sick and he had to take her to the hospital.
It was a new experience for Eaker, who has never dealt with illness or death in his own family.
“I come from a very healthy background. I’ve never been around anything like her,” Eaker said. “I’ve never had anybody in my family get sick, go to the hospital or die. Finding out the person you love and I see myself spending the rest of my life with having to go through this has been tough.”
Last year, things took a turn for the worse.
Pearce began to feel badly, and decided to go to a local Santa Monica hospital emergency room for help. While she was there, personnel treated Molly with non-irradiated blood, a mistake that her regular doctors believe caused her body to turn on itself.
Suddenly, the bright, hopeful girl who had finally found a path to a mostly normal life was sicker than she’d ever been, and in need of not one but four organs.
The world of organ donation and transplants is a complicated one.
Patients in need of an organ put themselves on a national list run by the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. Placement on the list is based on when a patient signed up and how desperately they need the organ.
According to UNOS, there are 126,900 registrants in the United States awaiting an organ transplant. That can include duplicates, as people can sign onto the registry in multiple hospitals.
Although the severity of one’s illness can secure a better placement, it can also work against the patient, said Charlene Zettel, CEO of Donate Life California, the local branch of a national organization committed to increasing organ, eye and tissue donation.
“You can be too sick to be on the list, too,” Zettel said. “Eighteen people are removed per week (in California). They either die or are too sick to survive surgery.”
Some don’t feel constrained by lists in their effort to save lives.
Jennifer Flood is one of three sisters who founded the Flood Sisters Kidney Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that provides matching services to those in need of living kidney donors for transplant.
She and her sisters sought out and found a kidney donor for their father using Craigslist.com, a popular website for listing items and services for sale or hire.
That usually doesn’t include organ donation, but the sisters eventually found a woman in Monterey, Calif. who was a match.
Now, the Flood Sisters are advocating for Pearce, seeking a donor with their unconventional methods. Pearce’s case presents a challenge. The organization has matched six people, including the Flood sisters’ father, with kidneys, but only with living donors.
Pearce, their seventh case, needs a deceased donor to provide all four of the organs.
“This is our first case with a deceased donation,” Flood said. “You can find a private family out there that will give their consent. Otherwise, the organs do get allocated to hospitals and UNOS.”
“We bypassed it for our father, and we’d like to for Molly,” Flood said.
It presents a moral quandary for Melisa Pearce, who understands that for her daughter to live, someone else must die.
“The truth is, I don’t want anybody to feel what I’m feeling,” Melisa Pearce said.
Melisa Pearce is a therapist who runs a business called “Touched by a Horse,” which pairs people with horses as a form of treatment. She trains people to heal emotional wounds and deal with grief, and she holds no illusions about her daughter’s medical condition.
Pearce entered the first two transplants relatively healthy and strong. It’s different this time, Melisa Pearce said, on top of the fact that her daughter must find not one but four organs, two of which are hugely sought after.
“From my daughter and Corey, you’ll hear a story of hope,” Melisa Pearce said. “Both of them see her surviving this.
“I have a 25-year perspective, and I don’t share their sentiment. I see her clinically disappearing. If we don’t get her the organs in the next 30 days, I don’t know,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.
Molly Pearce is still looking toward the future.
“I’m always thinking of what I’m going to do when I get out of here. It’s the main thing on my mind,” she said. “Thinking about the future means there will be one in my mind.”
To contact the Flood Sisters Kidney Foundation of America to help, visit www.floodsisters.org.