Melissa Morgan and her dad, Buddy Tartsah and her son, Garrett, at the Chickasaw Nation Wellness Center, Ada.

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  • Melissa Morgan, back row fifth from left, and her family celebrate her kidney transplant every year. Sept. 10, 2017, marked the 10th anniversary since she received a kidney, donated by her mother. Joining Mrs. Morgan are, front row from left, nieces Ralee and Rylan Collins, sister Rachael Collins and nephews, Redek Collins and Ben Gold. Back row from left, brother Marcus Tartsah, nephew Maddox Tartsah, mother Vicky Gold, son Garrett Morgan, Melissa Morgan, husband Scott Morgan, brother-in-law...

ADA, Okla. – A young Chickasaw woman successfully defeated breast cancer in 2016 but her quest for restorative health faces an impediment – one she has encountered before.

While surgery and a regimen of harsh chemotherapy destroyed Melissa Morgan’s cancer, it irreversibly damaged a transplanted kidney she received a decade ago.

Her body will eventually reject it.

Mrs. Morgan’s “Catch 22” is difficult to fathom. She received the gift of life from her mother, Vicky Gold, in September 2007. With the transplant, Mrs. Morgan began taking immunosuppressant medicine so her body would not reject the donated kidney.

“(The medicine) keeps my immune system low enough (so it won’t) attack my donated kidney,” Mrs. Morgan said. “When your immune system is low, not only does it not attack your transplant, it also doesn’t recognize cancer cells. The immunosuppressant did not (cause) my cancer. It just didn’t allow my body the chance to fight it off.”

It may take upward of a year or more for her body to reject the kidney and the possibility of another family member donating one is an option. In order to get a new kidney, she must be cancer-free for five years. If her donated kidney fails, it will force her to endure grueling and painful dialysis treatments until a transplant is available.

No Easy Journey

Mrs. Morgan recognized her body was warning her something was amiss in November 2015.

She had not been feeling well. Chronic fatigue and a nagging foreboding of illness permeated her thoughts.

Her primary care physician ordered standard blood tests and consultation with two specialists.

Nothing abnormal was found, but she was suspicious the tests were incorrect.

Mrs. Morgan is not a typical patient and does not enjoy the latitude of being careless with her health by virtue of her kidney transplant.

In February 2016, Mrs. Morgan, a Roff Elementary School instructor, awarded a book collection to an exemplary student.

The excited youngster leapt into Mrs. Morgan arms and delivered “one of the biggest hugs I have ever received.”

That hug triggered a sharp pain in her breast that radiated through her chest.

“That afternoon, I performed a self-examination and found a hard marble-shaped lump,” Mrs. Morgan said.

Examinations and a mammogram at the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center Women’s Clinic did not ring alarm bells. In fact, mammogram results looked favorable.

“But I didn’t feel right having a lump, so I insisted it be removed. I went into surgery believing my knot was nothing more than a knot,” she said.

‘You Have Cancer’

Groggy from the medically-induced sleep of surgery, Mrs. Morgan slowly regained her faculties and became aware her husband was seated next to her recovery bed.

“He is always by my side,” she said of her husband, who is superintendent of Roff Public Schools.

“He was unable to look up or to speak. I knew it was cancer.”

Her intuitiveness was confirmed by the oncologist.

“I’m sorry to tell you, but you have cancer,” she was told.

Additional poor news followed immediately.

Surgeons were unable to completely rid Mrs. Morgan’s body of cancer. Another surgery would be necessary, along with chemotherapy, to beat the disease.

Mrs. Morgan’s primal survival emotion – the ‘fight or flight’ feeling deep within everyone – overwhelmed her. She beseeched doctors to perform a bilateral mastectomy to remove the cancer and restore her health. Her doctors did not share her desire. They wished to perform more tests, begin chemo treatments, wait and watch.

Mrs. Morgan turned to her faith for answers.

“I believe faith is stepping out, knowing God is in control. I wasn’t going to change my mind about the bilateral surgery,” she said. “All I knew was I had cancer and it was still in me. All I wanted was to get it out and move on with my life.

Yet, she acquiesced to Integris Hospital’s Dr. Denise Rable who suggested giving chemotherapy time to work.

“I kept praying ‘Lord, is this the right decision?’”

It was the right decision to beat cancer. Mrs. Morgan’s second surgery in August 2016 produced vanquished cancer cells. Surgeons removed all of it and an affected lymph node. She was on the road to recovery and God led her to submit to a less invasive lumpectomy. She would continue cancer treatments until April 2017.

“I knew God was telling me ‘there’s the way to go’ (lumpectomy). I was afraid if I didn’t have the bilateral, the cancer would come back. It wasn’t an easy decision.”

A Setback Emerges

In November 2016, Mrs. Morgan’s transplant team from 10 years before detected diminished kidney function.

Three kidney biopsies, blood work, Herceptin cancer treatments every three weeks for one year and repetitive tests for Creatinine levels – a naturally occurring nutrient that feeds muscles but harms kidneys – were conducted.

After three months of these tests, Mrs. Morgan was informed she would reject the kidney.

“Cancer took one of the greatest gifts I have ever received,” she said. “It broke my heart the day I found out I would no longer have my mom’s kidney. I took great pride in owning my transplant. I knew the average transplant lasts 15 years, but I was so blessed to have it that I thought it would last forever.

“I have never been good at being a patient. I know kidney failure is coming, I just don’t know when. Since I have already experienced kidney failure, I know what type of pain awaits me. Each month, I feel the onset of another symptom and wonder if I’m going to have the strength to endure another battle.”

Tears flow easily when the future is uncertain. She wonders if she will witness her son, Garrett, 12, grow up to be a man. She is saddened her mother’s pain and sacrifice will be for naught. She wonders if she and her husband will be allowed “to grow old together.”

Family Is Everything

In an office overflowing with family photos, mementos and keepsakes, Vicky Gold serves as director of the Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Department.

When Mrs. Gold donated a kidney to her daughter Sept. 10, 2007, it started an annual family celebration to remember the day and remind the entire Chickasaw clan nothing is more important than family.

Akin to the seasonal palette of an autumnal equinox, 10 pink and white roses complemented with baby’s breath and fine greenery were delivered to Mrs. Gold from her daughter this September.

Each rose represents one year since the transplant.

Both women share the day with beautiful floral arrangements to the other. This year’s gift is especially poignant considering the recent diagnosis.

Medical experts predict the donated kidney will continue to serve Mrs. Morgan for another year – perhaps two.

But Mrs. Morgan’s Chickasaw blood has her preparing now for the fate that awaits her. She exercises at the Chickasaw Nation Wellness Center in Ada every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with her father, Buddy Tartsah.

“It’s important to stay healthy but also to get healthy,” she said. “Knowing what’s ahead gives me a chance to prepare my body to fight. So, it has been important and a mission for me to get fit, she noted of the exercise routine.

“I have always been afraid of losing. However, it is not the outcome of a battle that defines you. It’s what you do and who you turn to when you are held to the flame that defines who you really are,” Mrs. Morgan said. “The day I gave everything to God was the day I quit equating my life to a game of wins and losses. I was missing out on so much because I was afraid to lose.

“When adversity comes my way, I slow down, ask for God’s battle plan, then show up and give it all I have got. It doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it possible.”

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