Book Club Reveals Shared Chapter In Shawnee Heights Women's Lives

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Debbie Blaker and Paula Auten bonded over books.

While both grew up and live in the Shawnee Heights area, their lives had unfolded on separate pages, so they never imagined the chapter they shared.

Debbie's story revolved around lupus. She was diagnosed in 1998 and the disease eventually got into her liver, destroying it.

Debbie needed a transplant. It took 18 long months before a donor finally was found in June 2012.

"I had gone unconscious prior to surgery," she said. "There is no doubt I had hours to live."

While Debbie was recovering, she joined the book club to which Paula belonged. Paula was still reeling from her own tragedy.

Friends had thrown her 43-year-old brother, Mark Coker, a birthday party at a farm. Paula says he was standing on the back of an SUV as the group drove to another outbuilding on the property when he fell off and hit his head.

Mark never regained consciousness. Twenty-four hours later, the staff at Stormont-Vail approached Paula's family with a question: Would they consider donating Mark's organs?

"My folks just said, 'We have to make something good out of this.' It was almost like it was a suggestion and they just said, 'This is the right thing to do'," Paula said.

That December at book club, a nurse from Stormont gave a talk about organ donation. Debbie and Paula each shared their personal connection to the issue, then Paula passed around a letter her family received from the Midwest Transplant Network, telling about five people who'd received Mark's organs.

In the middle of the page, Debbie read about Mark's liver going to a woman in the Midwest who was married, had a daughter, loved to read and sold candles.

"I knew then," Debbie said. "There was no doubt in my mind it was me."

But recipients and donor families must follow rules when it comes to contacting each other. Debbie asked the Stormont nurse to reach out to Midwest Transplant and find out if her donor family had received the letter she'd written to them.

The next month at book club, Debbie had her answer when she turned around and saw Paula holding the letter.

"It was emotional," Debbie said. "To this day, I owe them my life. No one knows what it was like those 18 months, not knowing if you'd live to see the next day."

"It was unbelievable that it could be someone so close," Paula said.

Now, Debbie and Paula make it their mission to share their story. so other people might live to write a new chapter in theirs.

"People don't know how important it is because it's usually at a time when you don't want to think about it," Paula said.

"Every day, I thank God for what this family did because they did not have to do it, and they chose to - at a very hard time - to make that decision," Debbie said.

Parallel tales intersecting at a crucial point in the plot, leading to their happy ending.

"I've gained a sister," Paula said.