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Death Notice Guestbook

Obituary: Kimberly Fuller / Youngest heart-lungs transplant recipient

Monday, April 09, 2001

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Kimberly Fuller, the Oklahoma girl who made medical history in 1985 when she became America's youngest heart-lungs transplant recipient, died yesterday at her home. She was 25.

Throughout her life, Miss Fuller exhibited a sheer force of will to live and a strength of spirit that captured the hearts of her family, friends, Pittsburghers and the nation.

She went from being a national poster child for organ donation to becoming a successful young woman who traveled the world, earned a college degree and wrote a book. As an advocate for organ donation, she gave dozens of media interviews over the years, filmed a commercial and visited the White House.

"There were so many times physicians thought she would die. She always bucked the system. She always rallied when no one thought she would pull through," said Judi Landa of Marshall-Shadeland, who opened her home to the Fuller family 16 years ago and developed a lasting friendship with Miss Fuller.

Landa said that Miss Fuller died at 10 a.m. at her home in Yukon in suburban Oklahoma City and that her parents Sandra and Dave were at her side.

The cause of death was not immediately known but doctors in Pittsburgh had worried that the arteries in her heart were becoming blocked and they hoped to relist her for a heart transplant.

Miss Fuller captured the attention of Pittsburghers in 1985 when she was admitted to Children's Hospital weighing 35 pounds and desperately in need of the transplant operation. She was suffering from fibrosing pulmonary alveolitis, a rare degenerative condition that destroyed her heart and lungs.

But even though her own situation was grave, Miss Fuller did not despair.

Instead she faced the media clutching a teddy bear and wearing a pink flowered nightgown.

She issued a statement with a combination of innocence and insight that was nothing short of heart-wrenching.

"If I don't get the transplant," she said, "then I'd like to donate my organs to another child."

Just a few weeks later, though, it was Miss Fuller who received the transplant.

On Nov. 20, 1985 -- 18 months after she was placed on the transplant list -- Miss Fuller underwent a successful surgery, becoming at 9 the youngest person ever to undergo the dual transplant.

She was released from the hospital on Dec. 24.

"She personified human spirit and desire to live in spite of the odds. She never looked at me and said, 'I'm not going to make it,'" said Dr. Bartley Griffith, now chief of cardiac surgery at UPMC Presbyterian, who headed Miss Fuller's transplant team and who over the years also became her friend. "She fought the really tough fight and lived every moment of life. She was a wonderful, wonderful young lady. The world's a worse place without her."

Miss Fuller was readmitted to Children's in 1987 and 1989 because of minor cases of organ rejection, but aside from that, her recovery had gone better than anyone ever imagined.

In late 1991, though, Miss Fuller was having trouble breathing. Doctors found that the lungs she had been given were scarred from her body's repeated attempts to reject them and in May 1992, she was placed on the Children's Hospital transplant list a second time.

During the next two years, Miss Fuller became weaker and weaker, and at times she was near death as she waited for new donor lungs.

She never gave up hope, though, and on April 20, 1994, Miss Fuller was given a second set of donor lungs. Less than four weeks later, she was released from the hospital.

Miss Fuller went on to enroll in Oklahoma City University, where in May, she earned a bachelor of arts degree in English.

By then, she already had published one book, a science-fiction novel for teen-agers titled "Home," and a second book was in the making.

In addition to her parents, Sandra and Dave, Miss Fuller is survived by her brother Randy.

Services will be held in Oklahoma on Wednesday and a memorial also is expected to be held here at a later date.

Landa said that the family has asked that those who wish to honor Miss Fuller's memory do so by signing an organ donation card.

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