Teen won't give up after liver transplant

Andrea Lombard said she didn't know how to ask God for someone else to die, so her daughter could live.

"I bent down on my knees, and I prayed for Him to take my life," she said.

She prayed many times the night of Dec. 29 at Stanford University Medical Center. Doctors had just told her that her daughter, 15-year-old Douglas High sophomore Julie Rodriguez, would die within hours unless she received a new liver.

"The doctor said he would take any liver at that point, that each minute was gold," said Lombard, in a tearful interview on Tuesday. "He came in at 9:45 p.m. and said they'd found one, from a 24-year-old boy from Fresno with the same blood."

But for Lombard, the miracle was ambivalent.

"I don't know how the boy died," she said. "How do you thank someone for giving their life to save your child?"

Struggle with uncertainty is nothing new for Lombard. In 2000, she immigrated to the United States from Argentina.

"I was a single mother with three children," she said. "In Argentina, we were poor."

In Nevada, Lombard not only found a job as a cook for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, but met her second husband, welder Phil Lombard, and had another child.

Last November, her eldest, Argentina-born Julie Rodriguez, was a typical outgoing teenager. A sophomore at Douglas High School, her mother said she had lots of friends. She frequently took swim classes in hopes of one day being a rescue swimmer for the Navy.

Around the end of November, Julie's skin began turning yellow. She went to a doctor and was diagnosed with hepatitis A. But that was erroneous. A week later Julie's liver failed and put her in an emergency room at Carson-Tahoe Regional Medical Center. By the time she reached a liver specialist at St. Mary's Regional Medical Center in Reno, her condition was so precarious doctors had to perform a biopsy through her neck because of continual blood transfusions.

"She was going through four bags of blood a day," Lombard recalled. "They found that 65 percent of her liver was dead."

The cause of her sickness was not Hepatitis but a serious side effect of medication she was taking for thyroid problems, Lombard said.

On Dec. 12, Julie was taken by helicopter to Stanford for a transplant.

"She went into a coma. She woke up a little while on Christmas, but fell back into a coma the day after," Lombard said. "Her brain began swelling. Doctors said her body was shutting down. She wasn't responding to anything."

Julie was among hundreds waiting on a transplant list, Lombard said.

"Being at Stanford, I saw 9-month-old babies with leukemia. Mothers crying and waiting for transplants," Lombard said.

It got worse. Doctors told her Julie's brain was dying.

"Before she went into a coma, she made a promise. She said, 'Mom, you've taught me to fight my whole life, and I'm going to fight no matter what,'" Lombard said.

On Dec. 30, at 5:30 a.m., Julie went into surgery. During the middle of the operation, her heart stopped for four minutes. Doctors revived her, but questioned whether her brain was dead. They placed a new liver inside her body and completed the operation. Twelve hours later, Julie opened an eye and asked for her mother.

"She looked at me with one eye, with a tube in her mouth, and she said, 'Mom?'" Lombard recalled, with tears streaming down her face. "I can't describe how crazy it was during that time. I don't want to remember it. It was horrible."

Julie spent the New Year in intensive care fighting for life. Her lungs collapsed. She developed diabetes and lost 59 pounds. But she kept her promise to keep fighting, and gradually, day by day, improved.

"She had to re-learn how to eat, how to speak," Lombard said. "And when she could speak, she'd say, 'Mom, I want to go home.'"

Lombard and her husband drove back and forth between Stanford and the Valley, working for a couple days, talking to Julie by phone, then going back. Co-workers at the Sheriff's Office donated sick hours so Lombard could have more time off. They also helped drive the family to California and pay for Julie's medical bills.

"Her therapy (speech and physical) is $5,000 a day," said Lombard, whose medical insurance has capped out.

But the therapy has been working. Julie is regaining her ability to speak and is learning to walk. On Friday, she was moved to the Ronald McDonald House for child-transplant patients, down the street from Stanford.

"She's starting to set goals again," said Lombard. "She said, 'If I can't go into the Navy, I want to open a restaurant with you.'"

Julie's biggest challenge is for her body to accept the new liver. Lombard said she has at least two more months in the Ronald McDonald House before coming home.

"We haven't taken down our Christmas decorations," Lombard said. "She still has presents waiting for her at home."

Toward the end of the interview, Julie called her mom.

"I want to thank all of those helping me," she said on speaker phone. "I want to thank Douglas High School and my friends and family for being there. I'm coming home soon."

Those interested in helping the Lombard family with medical bills can make donations to Bank of America account No. 0520866907.

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