Izzie's Gifts

By Lora Ward Wilson

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it.” — Groucho Marx

I doubt that Isabelle Christenson knew who Groucho Marx was, but she embodied his philosophy. Just like Annie, the heroine from her favorite movie musical, Izzie would “stick out her chin and grin” and live with hope for a better tomorrow.

Izzie shared that spirit with everyone she encountered, especially her mom, Michelle. “How could we not be upbeat like her?”

Within weeks of her premature birth, Izzie was diagnosed with chronic pseudo-obstruction and a genetic mitochondrial disorder. She received two transplants: a multi-visceral (stomach, liver, small bowel, pancreas, duodedum) transplant in 2004 and a kidney transplant in 2006. She was “tough” and “spunky” in battling the effects of multiple strokes and learning to walk and talk again, and dealing with chronic pain and debilitating osteonecrosis. Izzie’s positive spirit sustained her through an ostomy due to an incomplete colon and the tube feedings she needed throughout much of her life.

Spending so much time at the hospital, Izzie became a darling of her doctors and the staff. She even liked to celebrate her birthdays there because “they were her friends.”

Between the many treatments and surgeries, Izzie enjoyed dance lessons, singing and hula hoops. She loved the first day of school because of the new clothes, but wasn’t as fond of the other days. She encouraged her older sister Maddie by traveling to her cheerleading competitions. Chinese and Mexican foods were her favorites. She adored her Shih Tzu, Lucy, and doing arts and crafts. She tried her best to be a normal kid.

Izzie BirthdayThe Christenson family always celebrated Izzie’s transplant anniversaries with cake and balloons in remembrance of her donors. Michelle chronicled her victories and trials in a blog provided for families on the hospital’s website. Before the third anniversary of Izzie’s multivisceral transplant she wrote, “Three years! Three years means more to us than just 1,095 days. It is the 3 extra Thanksgiving feasts, Christmas celebrations, and Easter holidays we’ve had as a family. It was three years ago tonight that we received the call that changed our lives and gave Isabelle her second chance. Every moment of every day is filled with gratitude for the gift we have been given by a family who is filled with sadness today.”

On August 13, 2008, Isabelle died at home, two days after suffering a heart attack.

Writing on the second anniversary of her daughter’s death, Michelle Christenson said, “It just doesn’t seem right…My bad dream seems to come back around these days, and I often find myself asking, ‘Why?’”

Certainly Izzie asked that question, too, as did the families of her two young donors. While dwelling on pain only seems to intensify the hurt, acts of giving and thanks bring healing and peace to those who grieve, to those who ask “Why?” The question has no satisfactory answer, but it can be the spark to transform sadness into renewed life for others.

This is what makes transplantation such a miracle. Emulating her brave daughter and her donor families, Michelle Christenson chose to overcome her pain by bringing hope to others.

Soon after Izzie’s untimely death, the Christenson family and their many friends teamed up to ensure that her legacy would live on. They created the Izzie’s Gifts of Hope Foundation to make a difference in lives of children and families dealing with chronic illnesses.

As a family, the Christensons still celebrate Izzie’s birthday by giving to others: bringing cake and gifts to the children at the hospital, or treating families with chronically-ill children to a day at the circus. Izzie’s Gifts funds outings throughout the year to help families create memories and feel a sense of normalcy.

“At work sometimes I feel like I am continuing her passion.” That is how Michelle describes her new career working part-time with living donors and donor family members at the local organ procurement organization, CORE. She shares Izzie’s story often to benefit the transplant community. Teenage daughter Maddie will soon join her as a speaker, giving a talk to help siblings who grieve.
Last year, the Christensons were contacted by friends of friends who were looking for someone to adopt their granddaughter. Arianna (Ari), now five, joined the family shortly after Christmas. “We’re some of the oldest parents with a child in kindergarten,” Michelle said. Ari has seen photographs of Izzie and participated in celebrating her birthday, but doesn’t quite grasp where she is. “She wants so much to meet her.”

“After losing a child you look at things differently,” said Michelle.

“Isabelle made me realize that every day is precious, not to take life for granted, never to get discouraged, to have courage to overcome obstacles and to always live life to the fullest. She has taught me patience and the importance of having an adjustable attitude. Have fun, laugh, and feel excited; do ordinary things in an extraordinary way; regard family and friends as the basis for security, support, and love; believe that anything is possible; and above everything else, remember that life is a precious gift.”