Transplant Patient A Long Way From Home

Jena Watson is no stranger to patients and caregivers on the fourth floor of University Hospital. She is known as a social butterfly – always working to brighten someone else’s day.

At first glance, a passerby might mistake Jena Watson as a visitor on her hospital floor. She is headed to the laundry facility to flip a load and then she’s off to work a puzzle before heading to physical therapy. In between stops, she visits with nurses and patients and pops her head around a corner to greet a housekeeping employee tidying a room. She knows them all by name.

Watson is no stranger to folks around the transplant unit.

A resident of Mississippi, Watson greets each hospital acquaintance with a smile and a distinct southern drawl that warms a room. She first came to IU Health in 2013, a candidate for an intestinal transplant.

“I asked my surgeon in Mississippi ‘if I were your mother, your sister or your wife, where would you go for a transplant? He said, ‘do you have relatives in Indiana?’ I told him, ‘I’m not looking for the cheapest gas. I want to go where they know what they’re doing,’” said Watson, a patient of Dr. Richard Mangus. She was transported more than 10 hours by ambulance, was stabilized and underwent multivisceral transplantation on a Tuesday in November of 2013.

“I was in ICU on Wednesday and Thursday, was in my own room on Friday and by Saturday I was washing my hair,” said Watson, 59. Her body sprung back from the transplant but she developed other issues and remained in Indiana for two years close to her practitioners. In December of 2015, she returned to Mississippi, hoping to continue her life as an art instructor. But when her kidneys began failing two years later, she returned to Indiana. She was readmitted to University Hospital in December and is undergoing dialysis three days a week.   

The only child of a cattle farmer, Watson says her hardships have made her rely on faith. Her father passed three years ago and her mother was murdered leaving Sunday church services. She’s raised seven children – including two foster children, and lost one child prematurely. She’s been divorced twice and lives alone in her Mississippi home.

“I know that my time here is meant to help others, to brighten someone else’s day,” said Watson. It’s not unusual for her to bake cookies as part of her occupational therapy and share them with staff. And some days she just gets a nod and knows there’s a patient who needs a little pep talk or some cheer. “It’s the little things that make the world of difference,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want go through all of the pain, uncertainty, and fear again but I also wouldn’t take anything for it. I know I’m here for a purpose. This is an amazingly compassionate, caring hospital and I’m just thankful to be alive.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
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 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.