Pearl and Vicki Lambert have a story and they want to share it with everyone they meet. The story has a happy ending, but could just as well have turned out otherwise, were it not for the decision made by Vicki Lambert and the successful procedure performed at Georgetown Hospital.
Pearl Lambert recalls how it all came about. Working two jobs, one as a custodian for Fairfax County and another as a part-time aide for Headstart, she felt just fine. However, a routine checkup revealed that was not the case.
“I went for a checkup and the doctor told me my liver enzymes were too high,” Pearl Lambert said.
After extensive testing Pearl Lambert returned to the doctor for his diagnosis.
“He said, ‘Pearl, you have a disease. You need a liver transplant,’” said Pearl Lambert. “I didn’t know what to say. I felt fine; I was working two jobs and had no idea.”
The disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis, is a very rare liver disease that usually only affects men. Pearl Lambert can never remember the name and calls it PCS. All she knew was that it was attacking the bile ducts in the liver and was going to make her very sick. Walter Payton, Hall of Fame running back, had the same disease; he died from it because he could not find a liver donor in time.
“I read his book — I could relate to him. Just like him, I didn’t want anybody to know and I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” said Pearl Lambert.
The diagnosing doctor, Dr. Vinod Rustti of Fairfax, suggested that she get on a waiting list for a liver at Georgetown Hospital immediately. To buy time, Pearl Lambert spent the next two years undergoing a procedure every three months where a stint was put down her throat to open up her bile ducts. After each procedure, she felt fine. Yet, the doctor’s prediction that she would start to feel tired, start to lose weight and get sicker and sicker would prove to be true.
“Everything he said came true,” said Pearl Lambert. “You can be fine one day and get sick the next. I went from a size 13 to a size 4. I was still working — I didn’t want to give up and tried to fight it.”
THROUGHOUT IT ALL, Vicki Lambert was right there with her mother, taking her to the doctors and watching her getting worse. When she realized that it was possible for her mother to receive a liver transplant from a live donor, Pearl Lambert agreed to be tested. It was a perfect match.
“A lot of blood types don’t match, but we were a perfect match,” said Vicki Lambert, who decided that she wanted to go through with the operation.
“I’m a very practical person — my mother struggled to raise me and my handicapped brother and I was with her in the last stages of her disease. She got weaker and thinner — it hurt my soul. I told her, 'Momma, you gave me life; I want to give you life.’”
The transplant took place on Dec. 18, 2002. Performed by Amy Lu and Lynt Johnson, the operations took place simultaneously on different floors. The doctors cut away half of Vicki Lambert's liver and removed Pearl Lambert's. They then placed the new half into Pearl Lambert and attached blood vessels to it. The operation lasted 13 hours.
They left the hospital together Dec. 27. Both livers grew back to normal size within six weeks.
Pearl Lambert said, “We walked in together and we'll walk out together.’"
VICKI RETURNED to work a month later; she takes no medication and feels fine.
“I just have a scar, it doesn’t bother me,” she said.
Pearl Lambert, however, continues to take anti-rejection medication and will do so for the rest of her life.
“I feel good — I’m still on medication but not as much. I’m excited about it, and I want to help other people,” said Pearl Lambert. “I want to get the story out to everybody.”
They both volunteer their time helping the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium and speaking to groups.
“This experience has brought my mother and my family closer together. There are over 86,000 Americans waiting for an organ. The list is so long because people do not sign their donor cards,” said Vicki Lambert, who is a new resident of Fairfax County and a special education teacher for Edison High School.
While Pearl Lambert won’t ever be able to return to her job with Fairfax County — she retired with full disability — she will continue to be an active advocate for organ transplants.
“What I want to be is a spokesperson,” said Pearl Lambert. “The more we come to the public, the more people who will donate their organs. Most people don’t know about it. I want to tell my story and help somebody.”
Vicki Lambert said that she and her mother have done a lot of public speaking educating the public about organ donations. They have spoken at various churches, including Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Mount Vernon.