The hospital is not where Susie Rich would’ve gone for her third date with future husband Chris. She would have preferred something more traditional, like dinner and a movie.
But there they were at Jackson Memorial Hospital, waiting for a diagnosis after yet another of her episodes.
“I don’t know how he didn’t turn around and run, ’cause I would’ve,” said Rich, a 37-year-old kindergarten teacher at Biscayne Elementary, who returned to the classroom on Thursday.
“The principal asked me this morning how I felt to be back, and I told her I haven’t been this happy since my wedding day,” Rich said. “It’s so refreshing to go back to my life.”
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Rich has battled a variety of severe medical issues since before she could speak.
“Everyone has something,” she said. “And this is my thing.”
There was the grapefruit-size cyst that doctors found lodged between her liver and gall bladder when she was 6 months old. Then there was a major surgery, soon after her first birthday, in which doctors worked to clean up the mess the cyst left behind and to insert tubes into her bile ducts.
At 16, there were the 300 mg doses of ursodiol, a drug Rich’s doctor prescribed preventatively.
Then there was the routine checkup five years later that yielded numerous surprises. Portal vein thrombosis. Esophageal varices. An enlarged spleen. There was a liver cancer scare in 2002.
It was almost more than she could bear.
“You get so tired of the medicines, the hospitals,” she explained. “And you think, ‘Is this really what life is gonna be?’ ”
But Rich never gave in because she had a beacon of hope: her students.
“They were the only thing that made me happy,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
Rich has worked with children since the late 1990s, when she was a student at Miami Dade College. Back then, she volunteered as an after-school coordinator at the Barnyard in Coconut Grove, and later at Silver Bluff Elementary School.
When illness began setting in again, in early 2015, Rich was settled in at Biscayne Elementary, where she has taught kindergarten since January 2005.
“That was my joy, to be at school,” she said.
Accepting her debilitated state was difficult. She was in need of a liver transplant, a necessity various doctors predicted would someday arise, but a major roadblock lay in the way.
Rich’s coveted spot on the Florida organ recipient list had been revoked due to her refusal to undergo a multivisceral transplant — a rare surgical procedure in which numerous organs are transplanted at once — because doing so would have significantly threatened her ability to carry a baby to term.
But her spot was reinstated, and the call eventually came. She was incredulous.
“I was like, ‘What? No. You’re wrong,’ ” she said, recalling the exchange between her and a nurse named Bella from her doctor’s office. “I was at a place where whatever God wanted, it would be.”
On May 19 at Cleveland Clinic Ohio, Rich received the transplant. Today, she is back in her classroom at Biscayne Elementary.
And when she is not molding young minds, she is working to educate those she crosses paths with about the importance of signing up to be an organ donor, which Christopher Carroll, executive director for Donate Life Florida, said is the biggest challenge of establishing an organ-donor network.
Rich says she is grateful for the person whose liver enabled her to return to work and to normalcy, and wants to make that a reality for others.
She is in talks with Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and working toward establishing a “workplace alliance” between the organization and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The partnership, Rich said, would help raise awareness about the importance of signing up to be an organ donor, as well as provide an opportunity for her colleagues throughout the county school system to sign up.
“Because someone made the choice to be an organ donor, I’m here,” she said. “Now I wanna pay it forward.”
To learn how to become an organ donor, call Life Alliance at 305-243-7622.