Sunday Spotlight: Donna O'Connor, North Salem mom and lung transplant recipient.
On December 1, 2020, North Salem resident Donna Hay-O’Connor entered Putnam Hospital for a minor procedure. The 53-year-old mother of two teenage boys was busy working full-time, raising her kids, hosting friends for dinner and spending time with her family. After her procedure, she expected to quickly return to her day-to-day activities. Christmas was just around the corner.
Shortly after Donna’s procedure, she developed sepsis, which then settled in her lungs. While some patients can overcome this, Donna’s condition deteriorated into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening lung injury that allows fluid to leak into the lungs.
Donna’s family – her boys, her sister Lauren and their mother, Evelyn,—believed that while Donna’s situation was scary, she just needed time to heal. But her lungs weren’t improving; in fact, they were getting worse. Donna was transferred to Westchester Medical Center for more advanced care.
At Westchester Medical Center, Donna was put on a ventilator and then a heart and lung bypass machine. Even on the ventilator, her lungs couldn’t absorb the oxygen that the machine was providing. Doctors told Donna’s family that her lungs were no longer working. Her only chance for survival was a lung transplant.
In a matter of weeks, Donna O’Connor had gone from a woman who had hiked five miles along the Appalachian Trail with her family over Thanksgiving weekend to a heavily sedated intensive care patient in desperate need of an organ donation.
The NYU Langone Transplant Institute accepted Donna as a transplant patient, but before she could be placed on the list for organ donation they needed to get her prepared. Donna began intense physical therapy; she needed to be as strong as possible in order to endure the 12+ hour procedure once a match was found.
While Donna worked with the nurses at NYU to prepare her body for a lung transplant, her boys, Jack and Luc, were busy trying to navigate life without their mom. The boys’ father had passed away over six years ago; there was no other parent to turn to in Donna’s absence. Jack, a freshman at the University of Tampa, couldn’t talk to his mom on the phone. Her tracheotomy made it impossible for her to speak. She was too weak even to send text messages. Luc, a junior at North Salem High school, was adapting to the world of remote learning, and living with his grandmother in Carmel.
On March 31, Donna went onto the transplant list. Her family prepared themselves for a long wait.
“There was a lot going against her to find a match,” said Donna’s sister, Lauren. At just 5 feet tall, Donna’s lungs were small; she would need lungs to match her petite frame. She also needed ones that would match her antibodies and her blood type.
Luc spent Easter Sunday with Evelyn, Lauren and his cousins.
“My mom and I are so involved,” said Lauren. “We try to make everything as normal as possible for them – birthday dinners, cakes.”
On April 5, the day after Easter, Lauren got a phone call from NYU Langone.
“The nurse said, ‘we have lungs for your sister,’” Lauren recalled. “I was floored. I wasn’t expecting something so soon.”
Donna’s transplant was a success, and she has spent the past several weeks beginning a very long road to recovery. Her muscles need time to recover and to work properly. Doctors have been able to wean her off the various machines that were supporting her. She’s now more aware of her surroundings, is on fewer medications and has moved from critical to serious condition.
Apart from Donna’s immediate family, a small army of extended family and friends have rallied around her and her boys throughout her ordeal. Several of Donna’s friends regularly drive Evelyn into Manhattan so that she can visit with her daughter at the hospital.
“It’s all all-day affair to go down and visit her,” said Lauren. “But we try our hardest because we know it’s really important for her to see us.”
Family friends John and Rachel Borsavage set up a fundraising page to help offset the financial burden. They have raised nearly $31,000 so far, toward a $100,000 goal. “[Donna] has been the sole wage earner for the boys for the past 6 years since her husband died,” says a post on the page. “Donna has been out of work since December without any income and will be for the foreseeable future as she awaits the lung transplant. Any monetary help you could give would go a long way.”
Vicki Jeffery, another friend of Donna’s, is confident that Donna’s strength, along with her devotion to her two boys will help guide her through a very difficult road to recovery.
“Not only is Donna a fighter, but she is also an amazing mother. She is so devoted to raising her two sons,” Jeffery said. “She’s an incredible cook, and great friend too! She makes everyone feel special. Donna is a beautiful person inside and out.”
“My sister is a very strong person and she’s going to get through this,” said Lauren. “She’s very determined.”
If you would like to contribute to the fundraising effort in support of Donna and her boys, please click here.