Meghan Finnnerty | August 29, 2021
SUNY Brockport Employee Donates Liver to Help Brockport Alum
John Carlson, who oversees SUNY Brockport’s mail room has a few unofficial titles. He’s the mail room guy, the guy who brings in cookies, or the guy who bikes from LeRoy to work. But now he has a new official title — John Carlson, living organ donor.
On May 17, Carlson donated part of his liver to Liz Turner ’09, who he hired more than a decade ago.
It was fate; or at least that’s how Carlson describes it. At the time the mailroom hired only six work-study students per year. Carlson’s interview process was simple, students would reach out and he replied, ‘do you have work study and when are you available,’ he recounted. However, Turner somehow slipped through the cracks – she wasn’t eligible. When Carlson found out after a few weeks of her working, he realized his mistake, but she kept her job for the next three years.
It was a job that would change her life.
“One thing that is kind of funny is that I didn’t want to go to Brockport at all, it was not my top choice but they gave me such a competitive scholarship that then it wasn’t really a choice at that point,” she said. “But I’m so glad that I went there.”
Brockport was where Turner made lasting friendships and formed meaningful connections. It’s how she was introduced to her husband, Fred. It’s also where she met Carlson, who would later donate his liver for a chance at saving her life.
“I just really owe a lot to my experience at Brockport and in the mailroom because my life would be very different if I hadn’t gone there,” she said.
Turner has battled chronic sickness for years due to Ulcerative Colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. In 2019, lab work revealed a new concern: she was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a chronic liver disease. The following fall brought worse news. Turner was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, Cholangiocarcinoma. She began treatments in December of 2020.
“It was a lot. It all happened really quickly,” she said.
She needed a liver transplant and waiting for a cadaver liver wasn’t a viable option. That’s when she turned to social media to look for living potential donors.
“I definitely used Facebook to my advantage,” she said.
Each of her posts stuck out to Carlson. “I felt really badly for her,” he said. “Was there a chance, perhaps I could save a life?” Carlson and Turner had maintained a friendship since she graduated in 2009. They were from the same area of Western, New York, he attended her wedding and they shared a similar taste in music — the two saw Cher in concert together a few years ago.
Carlson decided to text her in January of 2021 showing interest to donate.
Within two days he had a preliminary call with the Cleveland Clinic where he learned that other candidates were being considered, but his information would be kept on file.
“I don’t know how many people went through the testing process because it’s considered confidential health information,” Turner explained. “I know for sure there were at least three or four.”
As other options turned out not to be viable Turner was getting sicker.
On March 1, Carlson was driving home from Brockport when a number popped up that he didn’t recognize. It was the Cleveland Clinic informing him that he was now the first on the list of potential donors for Turner.
That single phone call made Carlson feel as if his life had already started changing. Carlson hung up with the clinic and called his sister immediately. “It was almost like I was in a movie or something, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” he said.
From that point on, it was a journey of all green lights. If you ask Carlson ‘why’d you do it?’ he says, “because nothing stopped me.” Not his age, health, blood type, job, or the fact that he drinks beer on weekends or a White Russian every once in a while.
Carlson never imagined being a living organ donor. He didn’t even want to be one. “I just wanted to give Liz a shot,” he explained.
With Turner’s health declining, Carlson picked the first available day to start testing in Cleveland. He had to stay the night in Pennsylvania due to New York’s Pandemic travel restrictions. But commuted for testing over St. Patrick’s Day.
There he spotted the Turners for the first time in years. “Her spirit was up,” Carlson said.
The Turner’s didn’t have time to feel sorry for themselves or to be scared. “(Fred) and I are both people who want to know everything about everything, so we felt prepared and well informed,” she said.
Carlson was focused on being ready. He had already quit grabbing a cold one after work and canceled a vacation to Arizona, and secured help from his family for his recovery in Cleveland. All that was left to do was wait for the committee’s approval.
Within a few weeks, they hit the next green light. Carlson was approved to donate to Turner.
“I was in disbelief but thankful,” she said. “I think I thanked him every other day for weeks leading up to surgery,” she said.
The original surgery was scheduled for mid-April but had to be pushed back a month due to an issue securing blood from the Red Cross. Which made them both a little antsy to get this over with.
Carlson arrived in Cleveland on May 16 and settled into the hospital. He started to document his journey through Facebook, photos, and journal entries.
“I ask nurse if I can visit with Liz and the answer is no. I ask if I can talk to her from the doorway and nurse smiles and says, yes. Visit with Liz and she says she’s eating something from the VIP menu. VIP menu is well, a VIP menu. My choices are clear liquids. I ask Liz if she wants to be in photo with me and she’s up to it.”
The next morning Carlson was taken into surgery around 9 am.
“I remember a funny feeling shortly after they start the iv and the next thing I know they’re talking to me post-surgery,” Carlson said. “When they woke me up and told me how well it went for both of us I was overwhelmed with emotion and relieved too.”
The days following were the hardest for Carlson. He was on a liquid diet and said it was mentally draining being in the hospital, hooked up to IVs and unable to sleep.
“One good thing is that at one point a nurse asks if I want to visit Liz, who’s also in ICU at that point. I do obviously want to see her and they’re nice enough to take a couple pics of us. That was definitely the highlight of the day. She can smile through a LOT of adversity and pain.”
“Having someone donate an organ to you is hard to explain,” Turner said. “It’s really not something that you can explain until it’s happened to you. Just knowing that someone was willing to do that for you It’s a really powerful experience.”
Post procedure, Turner is feeling better already and her liver is expected to fully regenerate within six months.
“It’s a good story,” Carlson reflects. “But it becomes a great story if she has good health from here on out.”
Interested in being an organ donor?
There are more than 17,500 people waiting for a liver at any given time. Nearly 5,000 people receive a liver transplant each year, but more than 1,700 die waiting annually.