SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - Texarkana, Texas native Natalie Banks knows first-hand the value of organ donation, having received 2 livers in her young life.
Her story is one that she and her family are sharing in hopes of giving hope to others who are waiting for the gift of life.
There are currently 124,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the United States.
Doctors say patients die every day while on that waiting list, because the number of those waiting for organs exceed the number of organs available.
Natalie's story begins with the early signs that appeared soon after her birth in May 1994.
Her proud parents were excited to show off their new bundle of joy. One one such visit, Kim recalls a friend noting that something wasn't quite right. "Her skin was really yellow and she said you really probably need to get that checked out," says Kim.
After the heartbreaking loss of a set of twin girls just years before, Natalie's parents were thrilled with her arrival. Kim brushed off the comment made by a co-worker until she saw the change for herself and soon would get the shock of a lifetime when she took Natalie to get her 2 month checkup.
"He called it biliary atresia," says Kim.
Biliary atresia is a rare disease usually diagnosed within the first few weeks of life in infants. It happens when the bile ducts outside of the liver do not develop normally. The cause of the disease is still not known.
Natalie's check up would be the beginning of a tumultuous 10-year journey for Natalie and her family.
"As a mother, you do what you have to do and that's what I did," says Kim. Doctors told the new parents that Natalie would need a liver transplant at just 2 months old. It would be 15 months before Natalie received that liver, a wait that usually is fatal for infants.
"She was on 13 different medications. We basically kept her alive through the medicines. I began to pray more, I began to just really dive into my faith," says Banks. "The fact that something so severe was happening to her and that we might not have her that long. It was devastating."
The transplant, done in a Chicago area hospital, was a success, Natalie would return home to Texarkana, Texas with her family. All was well until 6 years later during a long ride in the car with her mother. "I knew something was wrong. I'm like, 'She slept the whole time and it was hours,'" says Kim. Natalie had spiked a fever, so they went back to the emergency room the next day. Doctors sent them straight back to Chicago.
"It turns out she had a cyst on her liver that was punctured and it caused infection to go all over her body," says Kim. "So they had to do surgery after surgery. I think they had to do a good five or six surgeries."
This time, Natalie was seven years old and could remember all of the commotion taking place around her.
"Ever been in a situation where everyone knows something about you but you don't? That is how I felt all the time," says Natalie. "I know I was scared, angry and worried. Not really about myself but about my family."
Natalie had so many surgeries, doctors would leave the wounds open and bandaged in order to continue to go in. She had grown tired and weak and needed a second liver transplant.
"I remember turning over to my dad and I said, 'Whatever is going on, I don't care. I just do not want another transplant,' and then I went back to sleep," says Natalie.
"I lost it basically, because she is so strong and for her to just come out and say, 'Mom, I don't want anymore surgeries,' I didn't know what to do," says Kim. "So I prayed and said 'Okay God, heal her or take her' that's it. You don't want your child to suffer but you don't want to see her go."
The very next day, one of those prayers would be answered. According to Kim, God delivered what they called a blessing in the form of a new liver. It was just 7 days after learning she'd need another.
Kim and Greg now call Natalie their miracle baby, mostly because most children in her condition do not make it. Doctors say this is because the number of organs available versus the number of children and adults who need them are polar opposites.
"Natalie is a testament of how liver transplantation and transplantation in general really is a gift of life," says Dr. Shannon Tujios, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Tujios is Natalie's current doctor and says without her transplant, Natalie would not have made it.
In Texas, Dr. Tujios says there are currently 16,000 patients awaiting liver transplants and they are only able to do 6,000 of those transplants a year. "You can do the math and realize that it leaves a lot of patients that are dying waiting for these life saving organs."
Dr. Gazi Zibari, Director of the John C McDonald Regional Transplant Center in Shreveport, Louisiana echoes that sentiment.
"If you look at the list, the list is escalating going up every year while the number of organs we recover and the number of organs we transplant became a flat curve," says Dr .Zibari. "At least 18 people die every day while they are waiting for these organs."
That's why Natalie and her family want to offer hope to other families that have children in need of an organ transplant. Over the years, Kim documented Natalie's journey and eventually wrote a book so that Natalie and others could know her story. "I didn't have anything to go by, I didn't know what to expect." says Kim. "When Natalie had a second transplant, we had a family to approach us and ask us if they can go and see her scar so they can know what to expect."
Today, Natalie is 20 years old, a college graduate and employee at KSLA News 12. She wants to use her life as proof that you can survive with just a glimpse of hope, a heart of love and plenty of faith.
"I've seen death literally twice, multiple times. Faith has kept me here. Being 20 years old and still having dreams and goals, I'm going to achieve them, there's no question. If I've gotten this far, I can keep going."
Doctors encourage families to sit down and have the talk about organ donation. While it is a tough topic, doctors say the ending of one life can save another. For more information on how to have the conversation or organ donor statistics you can visit the Donate Life America website.