A Transplant Tale
If anyone knows how to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, it’s Tara and Jim Condon. When Jim RC’91, CLAW’97 found out in 2013 that he had terminal liver disease and would need a liver transplant, Tara SCILS’04 decided she had to make the best of a bad situation and even find the humor in it.
The couple’s odyssey began when Jim was diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, which can cause the liver to swell and become damaged. He was put on the national registry for a new liver and, while they waited and hoped, the reality of living with the disease set in. Jim had to follow a strict low-salt diet, abstain from alcohol (although he’d never been a heavy drinker), manage a slew of medications, and cope with constant fatigue and discomfort.
Tara, the director of product marketing for iconectiv, a communications company, says she wanted to make sure Jim, a semi-retired attorney, kept laughing through the ordeal. “When you find something funny, it feels less scary,” she says. As Jim’s primary caregiver during his illness, she had to “absorb a lot of information very quickly and then distill it and communicate it to those involved with Jim’s care,” she adds, skills honed while working toward her master’s degree in communications at Rutgers.
Fortunately, Jim is also able to laugh in the direst of situations and gave his blessing to Tara when she wanted to write a book about their experience. The result, Some Assembly Required: A True Story of Love and Organ Transplants (Black Rose Writing, 2021), chronicles a year the couple will never forget, describes how they coped during the ordeal, and offers advice for others facing a transplant—while providing comic relief along the way.
“It boils down to making an uncomfortable topic more comfortable,” Tara says. “We never want a discussion about the gift of life to occur on the worst day of your family’s life. So it’s starting those conversations early.”
When Jim’s condition worsened, he was given higher priority on the transplant registry. Finally, in March 2014, Jim got the call telling him there was a liver for him. The transplant was a success and seven years later, Jim is healthy and active. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he was elected president of the Rutgers Club, the university’s dining club on the Livingston campus.
Although the club had to close because of the pandemic, he and the club’s other leaders continued to build community through virtual events, including one with Eric LeGrand SAS’14, who talked about his new coffee company. “Our goal is to have the Rutgers Club reopen as early as September,” Jim says. “We look forward to welcoming Rutgers’ most recent graduates, as well as welcoming back our loyal longtime members.”
In the years since Jim’s transplant, both Tara and Jim have become certified volunteers with the NJ Sharing Network, the organ procurement organization responsible for the northern and central regions of the state. As such, they do media interviews and talk about the importance of signing up for organ donation.
And Jim often talks to nurses about organ donation, since they are on the front lines of working with families who may need to make painful decisions about donating a loved one’s organs. Just one donor’s organs “can save up to eight lives and help as many as 50 other people,” Jim says. “The number of lives you can touch through a single gift is incredible. Very few people are suitable donors so it’s necessary to get as many people as possible to sign up.”
More than 100,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant, Tara says. “So many people leave this world without even considering that they could be saving lives.”
Tara and Jim hope that her book provides encouragement and support for others facing a transplant. Tara wants readers to know that “even if you get the worst news of your life, you can move on from that. Hopefully, you become resilient and know that when something is seemingly the end of the road, it’s not.”
Jim says he’s normally a “private person” and not inclined to want to be the main character in a story about surviving liver disease. But he hopes his story can be inspirational for others. “For those who are at the beginning of this long journey to transplantation, I hope that I’ve shown them what the end looks like and that it gives them some strength to see it through.”