AUGUSTA — April Berends, known as “Rainbow Girl” for her colorful bangs, can’t say enough about the importance of being an organ donor.

She signed up to be a donor as soon as she got her driver’s license 14 years ago.

“I never thought I’d be on the receiving end of it,” said the 30-year-old stylist, who works at Margo & Co. Hair Salon on Western Avenue. “I wouldn’t be here without an organ donor.”

She started the new year with a new liver, and she encourages everyone she encounters to sign up as a donor.

“You can’t take it with you, so what’s the harm?” she said. “You can save somebody’s life.”

Recently she spoke at an event raising awareness of the need for organ and tissue donation at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., where her surgery took place, and where doctors have performed more than 1,500 liver transplants since 1983.

“Lahey Hospital & Medical Center is a renowned leader in transplantation,” said Daniel Marra, a spokesman for the hospital in an email. “Our program supports kidney and liver transplant patients who receive organs from both live and deceased donors.”

Berends, who lives in Augusta, got so sick so fast last winter that she moved rapidly to the top of the waiting list for a new liver; but many others, less ill, remain on the list.

“I’ve met so many people waiting for months and years,” she said.

According to the New England Organ Bank, the federally recognized organ procurement organization for the region, “More than 120,000 Americans are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants and many more wait for donated tissues. On average, 17 people in this country die every day — 6,600 each year — waiting for organ transplant. The reason is simple — a tragic shortage of donated organs and tissues.”

People can become donors by going online to and in Maine and four other New England states, by indicating that on a driver’s license.

Around Dec. 18, Berends, a petite woman with bright eyes and neon bangs, started experiencing flu-like symptoms for a few days. Then her skin tone changed.

“I was, like, yellow,” she said.

She was hospitalized first at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta, then taken by ambulance to Lahey on Christmas Day as her condition deteriorated.

“Nobody told us it was a transplant center,” Berends said.

Her family, her fellow stylists and friends worried about her.

“It was scary for all of us here,” said Margo Batchelder, salon owner and longtime friend.

The hospital had forwarded all of her test results to Lahey.

“I had levels that people are usually dead before their levels get to that point. … My bilirubin — the toxins that your liver is supposed to process out — were just so incredibly high and they couldn’t understand why I was still functioning,” she said. “And I was still happy and wanting to know what was going on.”

Then the confusion began. As medical providers questioned her, she could articulate fewer and fewer answers, becoming more and more frustrated. Then she was put into a coma for 24 hours, but she wouldn’t wake up on her own or breathe on her own. She spent a week in a coma.

Her boyfriend, Scott Richards, and her aunt had been given authority to make medical decisions for her. She went into acute liver failure, which she described as “not going to come back and not going to recover.”

She had hundreds of people willing to see if they could be a match.

She was told later she had only hours to live when the transplant occurred.

But she needed a whole liver, so the search was on for a cadaver liver with a blood type O-positive or O-negative, and it had to be a small one because of her body type. “I got on the (waiting) list and started to move up as my health went down.”

Over the New Year’s holiday, a liver became available, and she had the life-saving surgery Jan. 2.

She said it was performed by the man she calls “the liver guy,” Dr. Roger Jenkins, the hospital’s chief of surgery. She dimly recalls meeting him after the surgery and wondering who he was.

Richards told her what had happened, and Berends lifts her shirt to show a series of thin pink scars from the operation. She has a few other reminders, including various medications, as well as a strict prohibition on alcohol consumption, something that won’t be a problem, she said, since she wasn’t much of a drinker anyway.

“I was in the surgical intensive care unit for a day and a half. I asked, ‘What do I have to do to get off the pain meds?'” Her boyfriend and her aunt had to feed her because her muscles were so weak. But by the end of the first day, she was walking around.

She also recalls waking up to find that she had gained 70 to 80 pounds.

“I woke up with legs like tree trunks,” she said. “I looked like I had my brother’s legs.”

Once she started walking, the fluid drained swiftly.

Her father, Patrick Berends, and her stepmother flew to her bedside from California.

She credits Richards for remaining by her side.

“He was there every second,” she said. “He wouldn’t leave me.”

Berends is already back to work a couple of hours a week, even though her doctors encouraged her to remain out longer.

“It gets me out and seeing people,” she said. “I want to be around people. I love what I do. When I come to work, I like to hang out with my friends.”

This week, one of those people was Tim Schwerling, of Belgrade Lakes, who came in for a haircut.

He recalled texting Berends in early January to make an appointment.

She responded, “I’m in the hospital. I had a liver transplant.”

“I was shocked,” Schwerling said.

But on Wednesday, as he sat in her chair at the salon, ready to get that haircut, he agreed she was looking great as usual, with her neon locks back in place. Part of her head had been shaved at the hospital.

The Western Avenue salon had a bucket for donations to help Berends pay her medical bills, and Richards started a fundraising site at, where a search for “Rainbow Girl” takes you to her page. As of Friday it had collected nearly $2,800.

A benefit supper is set 5:30 to 10 p.m. May 16 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Gardiner. Tickets can be obtained in advance by calling 458-9669.

Berends had no health insurance at the time of the transplant. She said she thought she didn’t need it because she had never been ill. She has had health insurance since February.

“Now I’m working with the financial team at Lahey on a payment and maybe a payment reduction,” she said. At first she was on 40 medications in the morning and 32 at night. She’s been weaned off a good many and hopes to be off all within six months except for one anti-rejection medication she will be on for the rest of her life.

She said the hours she is able to work will help as well.

Berends also is seeking disability coverage for the time she’s been out of work.

In the meantime, her attitude remains upbeat and positive, reflected in a Facebook posting she put up on her 30th birthday, April 3:

“A few months ago we weren’t sure if I would even be here to celebrate my birthday, and I’m so incredibly blessed that I could. This year has already been so full of change and growth, love and support, and has been so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. I’m so eternally grateful for everything I’ve over come and everyone who’s supported me along the way.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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