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With firsthand experience, Laurel resident on a mission for transplant donations

When Ieesha Johnson took a tumble during a Tough Mudder challenge in 2013, she didn’t feel any pain and continued to compete in the 10-plus-mile obstacle course in West Virginia. It wasn’t until she reached the next obstacle that the Laurel resident realized something was wrong with her hand.

“I didn’t think much of it when I went to the medical tent,” Johnson recalled. “They told me I needed to go to the E.R., that I probably broke something.”

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She learned that while she did not break any bones, she did have a tumor that proved to be a benign mass and not cancerous when she had it removed upon returning to Maryland.

“I had a hole so big, I had to have a bone transplant,” Johnson said. “They could have taken it from my thigh, but that would have been another procedure. I decided to use donor bone.”

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For Johnson, the decision to use donor bone mirrored her career path. The California native was a hospital services coordinator and in-house coordinator for OneLegacy, an organ procurement organization in Los Angeles before moving to Maryland and joining the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland as a hospital services coordinator in 2010.

“I had to educate him on the terminology,” said Johnson, laughing, about the doctor who handled her bone graff. “I forget I have it sometimes until I see the scar.”

Now the manager of community outreach, Johnson, 42, is using her own experience to increase awareness of the need for organ, eye and tissue donations in Maryland.

“I do all of the public education and manage all the volunteers,” Johnson said. “We work closely in communities without high levels of trust in the medical health care system.”

Many individuals, African Americans especially, Johnson said, trust their faith-based institutions. To reach this community, Living Legacy has held an annual Donate Life Gospel Fest featuring gospel artists and choruses as well as presentations by local transplant recipients and donor families during National Donor Sabbath, an interfaith observance about the lifesaving gift of donations observed two weekends before Thanksgiving.

“You hear the stories of those touched by donors,” Johnson said. “Those personal connections are the most important. You hear the struggles and the desperate need.”

This year marks the Gospel Festival’s 10th anniversary, which, because of the pandemic, will be held virtually on Nov. 14 on the Living Legacy Foundation’s Facebook page. Actor and producer Palmer Williams Jr. will act as host of the event with recorded performances by the musical artists April Hall, Davon Fleming and Davon Rice.

“Palmer Williams will be live, like a breath of fresh air,” said Johnson, who will also participate live in the event. “It will not have the same impact as a live event but ... we can reach a whole different audience.”

Charlie Alexander, president and CEO or the Living Legacy Foundation, also believes the virtual event has the potential to further spread the foundation’s mission.

“On the downside, you don’t get the feeling of community and togetherness,” Alexander said. “But, we have access to more people to see the performers and hear the stories. If we can move them to action, to register as an organ donor ... it is the most powerful thing we can do.”

According to the Living Legacy Foundation, there are about 3,000 Marylanders waiting for a lifesaving transplant and still others whose lives will be enhanced by tissue donations.

“Looking at me, you would never know I had a donor bone from someone else,” Johnson said. “Tissue donations may not save a life … but they enhance it. There are things people don’t know.”

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Since 2013, Johnson sees her doctor regularly and has had no issues.

“I don’t know where it came from. I am not sure how long the bone was disappearing in my wrist," Johnson said. “It is always in the back of my mind. ‘Could it come back?’”

Johnson, Alexander said, “Is a full-circle story."

“She is a really valuable part of our team,” Alexander said. “She is the epitome of the program. We just love her.”

Johnson encourages everyone to talk about their wishes in regard to donations.

“Whatever someone makes about end-of-life decisions, share with friends and family,” Johnson said. “Yes or no, it is hard on family members who don’t know their wishes. Share and start that communication.”

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