PALM COAST, Fla. – More than 123,000 people in the United States are currently waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant and another name is added to that list every 12 minutes, according to the American Transplant Foundation.
Caitlin Bradley, 23, of Palm Coast was one of those people. Bradley was diagnosed with auto-immune hepatitis at the age of 15. It was a disease she thought would be little more than an inconvenience, not likely to affect her until much later in life.
Today, Bradley is energetic, athletic and full of purpose. But two years ago things were much different.
She was away at college when she just didn't feel right.
"I had a gut feeling something was wrong," Bradley said. "I knew. When people say they know something is wrong, they know."
Something was wrong. Bradley's liver was shutting down. She would need a liver transplant.
"When you're on a transplant list, there's no guarantee," she said. "I mean, there's no promise. People wait five years, 10 years."
Bradley knew she didn't have that kind of time.
"That's scary," she admitted.
On April 12, 2013, she received the gift of life.
"It was the craziest day I can even imagine," she said. "My surgeon walked in the room -- I was getting dialysis -- and he delivered the news."
After a successful surgery, Bradley worked hard to get back to her normal life. Then one day a letter arrived. It was from her donor family.
"It was life changing, to be honest," Bradley said. "That's probably how I can explain it. I didn't expect the donor to be who he was, how old he was."
Her donor was JT Townsend, a 9-year old boy whose life was taken in a well-publicized auto accident.
"I always say, 'The greatest hero I never knew was the organ donor who saved my life,'" Bradley said.
Bradley and her donor family have traded emails and spoken a few times since. She said after she learned who JT was it gave her focus and motivation to promote organ donor awareness.
"My donor saved five lives," Bradley said. "Unfortunately, his mom saved four lives, because they both passed away. Both corneas went to people as well. And that's exactly why you should be an organ donor. I mean, (that's) nine lives saved. That's truly astonishing to be honest."
Bradley now volunteers to speak publicly whenever possible.
"I really do just want to give back," Bradley said. "I'm here. I have a second chance at life. I'm here for a reason."
Bradley volunteers with TransLife, an organ and tissue donation service located in Winter Park. TransLife Public relations manager Kristine Neal said many times people misunderstand the facts surrounding organ donation.
"One organ donor can save up to eight lives, and one tissue donor can enhance the lives of more than 50 people," she said. "Being on the registry does not impact the care you receive when you're admitted to the hospital."
Neal said one of the things her organization often talks about is the "ripple effect" of donation -- the fact that one person can make an impact on so many others through a compounding effect.
"With one organ donation you're not just changing the life of the transplant recipient, but look at Caitlin, look at what Caitlin is able to do as a result of her donation," Neal said. "Her family is impacted, her soccer team is impacted. She's making a ripple effect and it's all because somebody said yes."
If you would like to register to donate go to DonateLifeFlorida.org