Purchase photos

Hays resident provides breath of life for grateful recipient

5/21/2014

By ELIZABETH GOLDEN

egolden@dailynews.net

Judy Murphy was a nursing instructor at North Central Kansas Technical College since 2003. As a lifelong nurse and Hays resident, she worked at several regional hospitals before returning to school in 2007 to complete her master's degree to teach nursing. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage April 19, 2009, at age 51. She was an organ donor.

Jim Uhrig, 68, Venetia, Pa., was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2008. Pulmonary fibrosis occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. Thickened, stiff tissue makes it difficult for lungs to work properly.

"I felt like I had the flu," Uhrig said. "My primary-care doctor listened to my lungs and said they sounded like Velcro. After a visit to a pulmonologist, a review of chest X-rays and Computerized Axial Tomography scan led to a diagnosis."

Uhrig knew his lungs eventually would fail, so he was evaluated for a transplant in March 2009. Two days after Murphy died, Uhrig was given her lungs.

"The surgeon who took out my lungs said I would have lived six to eight more weeks," Uhrig said. "They were as hard as a brick. In that situation, the heartbreak of the donor's family was heavily on my mind."

In August 2009, Uhrig received a letter through the donor's network. The letter was from Travis Murphy, Judy's son.

"We knew it was possible to reach out to the recipients, but we didn't know how it worked," he said. "We sent about a dozen anonymous letters through the donor's network to the families or actual recipients. We received about a half dozen responses, one was from Jim."

Uhrig wrote the Murphy family three letters.

"They're tough letters for the donor's family to respond to," Uhrig said, "especially if after establishing contact with a recipient, that person could die. Then it's like a part of your mom died again. So I understand it was tough. But I wanted to write him back and thank him for the gift of life. Travis wrote me back and gave me more details about Judy. I carry that letter with me all the time just in case I'm having a bad day."

Within the next year, Uhrig participated in the Transplant Games of America. He was the only lung recipient to participate in the 100-meter dash. He wrote his final letter in January, telling Murphy about the games. The following summer, Murphy added Uhrig on Facebook.

"He told me about the games, so it wasn't difficult to Google him," Murphy said. "We started corresponding and met a few months later. It was almost a surreal miracle, sitting across from a guy who is alive because the lungs that are in him came from my mother. It really was an amazing opportunity."

Before being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, Uhrig was a traveling businessman who worked as a football and basketball official for many years.

"When I told that to Travis, he started laughing," Uhrig said. "I asked, 'What's so funny?' He said, 'My mother hated officials.' We always joke about that."

"Because my mother had a great sense of humor," Murphy said, "she would think Jim getting her old lungs was the biggest joke of all."

Uhrig believes he was meant to receive Judy's lungs.

"Her passion lives on in me," Uhrig said. "She was quite an amazing woman. She raised four boys, like I raised four boys."

Uhrig recently finished writing his book, "Partners 4 Life," about his experiences as an organ recipient. He volunteers with organ-donor families.

"There's no book on how to handle something like that emotionally," Murphy said. "The fact that you have someone engaged in helping others is great. There's a sense of partnership between him and my mom helping others, and her lungs helping him speak to people in order to help them. There's something really comforting about that."

Murphy's story ended where Uhrig's began.

"There isn't really a way to justify (Judy's death)," Murphy said. "But if you can say a part of my mom lives on in other people and helps them see their children or grandchildren a little longer, it helps make a little bit of sense out of what happened."

The Murphy family set up a nursing scholarship in Judy's name at NCKTC that is given away each year on graduation.