A promise to Emily

Every 10 minutes a new person is added to the national organ transplant waiting list.* *Iowa Donor Network

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Liz Markert holds a photograph of her daughter, Emily Markert. Don Fitzgerald, Liz Markert’s brother, is also pictured. Don Fitzgerald and his brother, Larry Fitzgerald, each donated a lobe of their lungs to be transplanted into Emily.

MANSON — Before Emily Markert died in 2014, she asked her mother to make a promise.

Markert, of Manson, wanted her mother, Liz Markert, to continue to raise awareness for organ, eye and tissue donation.

“This was part of Emily’s bucket list, was to have an event to raise awareness,” Liz Markert said. “This was so important to her. I promised her. I said, ‘Emily, we will come together and we will do this.'”

Emily Markert suffered from a serious lung condition. But she was able to live almost 15 years longer because of donors.

In the weeks before her death, Emily Markert helped organize an event to raise awareness for exactly that — organ donation.

-Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
BELOW: Betty Sweet looks at a photo of her daughter, Abby, finishing the Boston Marathon with Emily Markert in 2007, about a year after Markert had a lung transplant in this 2017 photo. Markert died in 2014.

She didn’t live to see the event.

“The unfortunate part is the first year we planned her event she was living and able to plan a few things and then she faded away into somewhat of a coma,” Liz Markert said. “She passed five days before the event, but we went ahead and had it because she was so adamant. It was an emotional thing for her to give up. She didn’t want to give up because she felt like she hadn’t done all she could to raise awareness for organ, eye, and tissue donation.”

One of the things she wanted others to see were signs showing organ donation statistics.

“She wanted signs out for people to see statistics and how important it was,” Liz Markert said.

Emily Markert was 32 when she died on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014.

Her funeral was the following Tuesday.

That same week, the first Emily’s Fight, Donate Life was held.

“To hear this young girl and that was her passion,” Liz Markert said. “I said, as a family, we will do this for you.”

Emily Markert first started experiencing discomfort in her lungs just before her senior year of high school at Manson Northwest Webster.

That summer she heard “what sounded like Rice Krispies in her lungs when she took a deep breath,” Liz Markert recalled.

A small spot on her left lung was later identified by doctors at UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center.

Within a couple of days, she was transferred to Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames. After two weeks there, her left lung developed a leak.

She was airlifted to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. During the flight, both of her lungs collapsed and she was put on a ventilator.

“She was there for two months and never really came up with a diagnosis,” Liz Markert said.

Even so, Emily Markert was determined to get better.

“She was an avid runner and was in shape,” she said.

Her daughter even exercised on a stationary bike while she had chest tubes in.

“Doctors had never seen anyone with chest tubes in riding a bike.”

After two months, the results of a CT scan showed more than 50 percent of her lungs were destroyed.

Emily Markert would need a transplant to save her.

“She was very frail at the time,” Liz Markert said.

At that time, the Mayo Clinic had only performed two lung transplants within the past year, she said.

Liz Markert thought she would end up being the donor, but instead it was her two brothers, Don and Larry Fitzgerald.

“Emily was having a very difficult time accepting this, and she would not accept Larry and Don as donors,” Liz Markert said. “She didn’t want them to go through the pain.”

Don Fitzgerald helped change her mind.

“We did a lot of talking and finally I said if the roles were turned around you would want to do it for me or for Larry or whoever,” Don Fitzgerald said. “We had a lot of hot air in us, and we had a lot to spare. Our lobes completely filled her cavity.”

Liz Markert said Emily Markert’s attitude shifted when she decided she wanted to proceed with the surgery.

“Once Larry and Don convinced Emily, she was so excited and started looking towards the future,” Liz Markert said. “She was very happy.”

The family moved to California, where the surgery was performed in October 1999.

It was a success.

By January of 2000, Emily Markert was dancing with the high school dance team.

In the spring, she ran the 200-meter dash with the track team and in August she participated in a 5K race. She graduated from Manson in 2000.

In 2005, she graduated from Iowa State University. She became a licensed dietician and later worked at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

But the results of the initial surgery didn’t last.

Five years after the operation, Emily Markert’s body began rejecting the lobes and she was put on the waiting list for another transplant.

It was one year before she would have the second surgery performed.

The family moved back to California, where a donor was found in only five weeks.

A double lung transplant was performed in February of 2006.

“Emily pulled through the surgery, improved daily and we headed back to Iowa three months after her surgery,” Liz Markert said. “That surgery was tougher than the first one. She had to learn to walk again, feed herself again.”

In 2007, Emily Markert was able to run the last mile of the Boston Marathon.

“Her friend qualified and they let her run the last mile,” Don Fitzgerald said.

Emily Markert lived 10 years after the second surgery before experiencing complications again.

She became increasingly weaker.

“Every time she had something planned with the Iowa Donor Network, she was sick,” Liz Markert said.

But she maintained a positive attitude.

“She treasured the gift of life,” Liz Markert said. “The fact that Don and Larry gave her lobes and have a second chance at life, she was never going to complain, ever.”

In four years, her event has raised more than $50,000 for the Iowa Donor Network, although Liz Markert is quick to point out that’s not all that counts.

“It’s about the awareness, not the money,” she said. “It’s about bringing people together.”

She takes comfort in the fact that her daughter is continuing to help others through her event.

“When you lose someone, you never want to forget your loved ones,” she said. “It’s a special day for everybody. Even though it’s Emily’s Fight, Donate Life, it includes everyone. I know that’s how Emily would want it. It’s about everyone facing the challenge.”

Emily’s Fight, Donate Life

What: Fifth annual Emily’s Fight, Donate Life, run-walk event

Where: Floral Hall on Main Street in Manson

When: Saturday

Time: Registration from 7 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.

Emily tribute at 8:15 a.m.

Race starts at 8:30 a.m.

Cost: $25*, includes, entry fee, T-shirt, food and drink.

*Proceeds go to Iowa Donor Network

Transplants save lives

An average of 20 people die each day while waiting.

On average, 92 transplants take place every day in the U.S.

One donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and save and heal more than 200 lives through tissue donation.

Every driver’s education class in Iowa must have one educational session on organ, tissue and eye donation for their students.*

*Iowa Donor Network