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Heart Transplant Recipient Tries To Find And Thank Organ Donors

PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) -- For one San Francisco Bay Area mother and daughter, the Thanksgiving season has been extra special for the past 29 years.

Carlis and Corie Crowe said they have former KPIX 5 reporter Barbara Rodgers to thank for that. It all began with Rodgers knocking on their door on a November morning in 1987.

Because of that 1987 encounter, this year's holiday season the Crowe family asked Rodgers to meet with them, and she agreed. The location: Stanford Medical Center.

When Rodgers arrived, she was greeted by a young lady who ran up to her with a huge smile and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Rodgers was overcome with emotion.

"Oh, oh, you're gonna make me cry," exclaimed Rodgers as the young lady hugged her tightly.

"It was the tightest and longest hug I've had in a very long time," Rodgers said.

The last time Rodgers saw Corie, she was just a few weeks away from her 3rd birthday.

In an old videotape, you can see the story that aired in 1987: Corie as a little girl sitting on her mother's lap. Carlis, her mother, is laughing at what her daughter has just told her.

"A what heart?" asked Carlis.  "A green heart?" said Corie.

"Is that what kind of heart you want?" Carlis asked.

"Yeah," responded the little girl.

In 1987, Corie was a very sick child. She needed a heart transplant. Without it, doctors gave her only a few months to live.

But her mother's group health insurance at the time denied coverage for the transplant surgery.

The insurer sent Carlis a letter denying the coverage and calling the procedure "experimental."

Even though successful heart transplants had been performed on adults at that time, transplants for young children were still in their early stages. But the denial of coverage didn't cause Corie's mother to give up.

"I called Channel 5, so that's what I did," said Carlis when Rodgers interviewed her recently.

In 1987, Rodgers was assigned to report on the story.

"What was your feeling that day when I showed up at your door?" asked Rodgers.

"I was just shocked! Shocked and relieved that maybe somebody would do something," replied Carlis.

In 1987, Rodgers contacted the mother's health insurer, but the company declined to comment on camera.

Rodgers then spoke to Corie's cardiologist, Dr. Daniel Bernstein, who is now Director of the Children's Heart Center at Packard Children's Hospital and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at Stanford University. Dr. Bernstein was the cardiologist whom Rodgers interviewed all those years ago.

Dr. Bernstein told Rodgers that he did not consider a pediatric heart transplant "experimental."

She interviewed Carlis and showed video of the little girl playing joyfully in her room. The story then aired on KPIX 5, and life changed for the Crowe Family.

After Rodgers' 1987 report aired, describing Corie's predicament, viewers called and informed the news department that Kaiser health insurance covered pediatric heart transplants.

And, the timing was perfect: it was open enrollment time where Carlis worked, and Carlis could switch her group health insurance plan to Kaiser, which she did.

"We were able to get the coverage that we needed so that she could have her transplant," said Dr. Bernstein in the follow-up story that Rodgers did this year.

In January 1988, Corie got her new heart. Since Kaiser did not do heart transplants, they could refer Corie to Stanford Medical Center. Stanford specialists stepped in to perform the surgery on the little girl. Stanford University was, and still is, world renowned for its heart transplant program.

"I don't remember the actual transplant, but I do remember the survival afterwards," said Corie, 28 years after her life-saving surgery.

Corie was one of only 20 children ages 1 to 5  to get a transplant in the U.S. in 1988.

At her recent reunion with Rodgers, she brought scrapbooks to share her life in photos with the reporter.

She said growing up after the surgery was hard because the medications she had to take caused side effects that drastically changed her appearance.

"I endured a lot of teasing from children and I also was made fun of from a lot of adults as well. It hurt really bad. There were a lot of tears," explained Corie.

Unfortunately, Corie's tears didn't end with her childhood.

In 2005, the unthinkable happened. Her new heart began to fail.

"One of the long-term complications that patients have with heart transplantation both 30 years ago and unfortunately still today is the development of a narrowing of their coronary arteries, the blood supply to the heart," said Dr. Bernstein.

The cardiologist explained that complication occurs in about 20 percent of children who undergo heart transplant surgery, and that was the main reason for Corie needing a second transplant after 25 years.

Corie was so sick that she weighed only 67 pounds. She explained her heart also was damaged after numerous, required biopsies.

"Unfortunately back when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s, you needed a biopsy every three months," explained Corie.

"So that damaged the heart?," Rodgers asked.

"Yes," replied Corie, adding that her second heart transplant took place at Stanford on July 30th of 2006.

Today, the tests that used to be performed by biopsy can be done by just taking a blood sample so that the heart is not damaged.

Because Corie has been so fortunate, she is now paying her good fortune forward as a volunteer with the Donor Network West.

Doctor Bernstein, who is still Corie's cardiologist, said that the work she's doing is saving other people's lives.

"Getting more organs donated is key to the success of organ transplants, especially in children. So the more spokespeople we have and especially a young lady like Corie who can speak specifically to the African American community, who can encourage organ donation in that community, any help we can get is important," explained the cardiologist.

Corie is now one of the longest-surviving heart transplant recipients in the country, which is why she recently contacted Rodgers.

"I had a goal for myself, that I said to myself, that if I live to be 30, then I want to meet everyone who was involved in allowing me to live all the way to be 30," Corie explained.

This Thanksgiving season, Rodgers also wanted to say thanks to Corie and her Mom for letting her know that she had made a difference in their lives.

"Maybe there are other people's lives I've saved, but this is the first one who has come back to tell me about it," laughed Rodgers, while wiping away tears of joy.

"I'm here, I'm here," responded the beautiful young lady as she squeezed Rodgers' hand in another gesture of thanks.

Corie is also hoping to reconnect with members of her donor families so she can thank them too.

She has set up a Facebook page called "3 Hearts Beating As One,"  that she hopes anyone who hears her story will share, so that maybe someone will give her information about her donor families. Because of all the people who have helped her over the past 29 years, Corie can now add a lot more photos to the album of her life.

To learn more about the organ donor process, you can explore these links:

3 Hearts Beating as One:

California Donor Registry:

Donor Network West:

Stanford Heart Transplant program:

Packard Children's Hospital Pediatric Organ Transplantation:

United Network for Organ Sharing:

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