By: Richard L. Smith
Robyn Ashmen, 52, is taking time to reflect on life’s most precious moments as she recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of her life-saving kidney and pancreas transplants.
Robyn, who is consistently ranked one of the top professors at Stevens Institute of Technology, inspires her students and those around her by sharing her personal story of overcoming challenges.
Robyn is also passionate about advocating for NJ Sharing Network, the nonprofit organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue in the Garden State.
In April, during National Donate Life Month, she will speak to her fellow parishioners at St. Bartholomew's Church in East Brunswick following mass to encourage them to register as organ and tissue donors.
“Right now, there are nearly 4,000 people in New Jersey waiting for a life-saving transplant. Just one organ and tissue donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of over 75 others,” said Robyn.
“Every day, I thank God and my organ donor and his brave mother for the gift of life. We often forget that our actions can have a positive effect on the world.
Organ and tissue donation creates a powerful ripple effect on the lives of others and their loved ones.”
Robyn was 16 years old when she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Despite her many health challenges, the lifelong New Jersey resident earned a bachelor’s degree from Montclair State University, a master’s degree from Seton Hall University, and a Ph.D. in Health Science from Drexel University's College of Nursing and Health Professions.
“In 2002, I had just completed my master’s thesis when my health issues became critical, and I had to begin dialysis,” said Robyn. “Dialysis was extremely difficult, but I continued to work full time, which helped me stay positive and hopeful.”
Robyn’s prayers were answered nearly one year later when she received a phone call from a nurse at Hackensack University Medical Center.
“I’ll never forget the sound of her voice when she said, ‘Robyn, how would you like a perfectly matched kidney and pancreas?
’ I fell to my knees with joy. I was excited and extremely chatty when they wheeled me in for surgery at the hospital.
I remember my doctor joking with everyone that ‘somebody needs to shut her up,’” said Robyn.
Robyn’s kidney and pancreas transplant surgeries were a success, giving her a second chance to live life to its fullest.
Her donor hero was a young man from California who tragically passed away following an accident. Robyn continues to stay in regular touch with her donor’s mother.
“It feels like he (my donor) is nudging me when he wants me to speak to his mom,” said Robyn. “There are never enough words to express my gratitude. Whenever I get to enjoy a special moment or even times when I can enjoy eating something sweet, I tap my side and thank my donor for making everything possible.”
In 2006, Robyn had a major health setback when she lost kidney function due to the BK virus. She then experienced yet another life-changing moment.
“I went to see my doctor when we noticed that my stomach had popped out a bit,” said Robyn. “I was shocked when an ultrasound showed that I was five months pregnant. My doctors were even more surprised than my husband and me.
The last two months of my pregnancy, I needed to go back on dialysis, which was not easy when you are pregnant, and driving to dialysis six days per week - driving from East Brunswick to Hackensack.”
On June 16, 2010, Robyn’s daughter Olivia Ashmen was born via emergency C-section. Despite arriving prematurely at 30 weeks, Olivia proved to be a strong fighter like her mother.
“The medical team was expecting the worst. They called Olivia ‘a miracle baby’ because she was breathing room air - she was never intubated, and her lungs were fine,” said Robyn.
Two years after Olivia’s birth, Robyn received a second successful kidney transplant. This time, her living donor hero was her cousin.
Today, Robyn’s kidney and pancreas continue to function perfectly. She and her fiancée, Howard Woods, are looking forward to their wedding later this year.
Olivia, now 12 years old, is thriving and currently working on her Silver Award for Girl Scouts.