SCHERERVILLE | Viewers who tune in for the Rose Parade at 10 a.m. on New Year's Day may see a familiar face among the mums and marigolds.
Linda Ramos, of Schererville, will ride on the Donate Life America float, slated as 15th in the parade lineup.
An advocate for organ donation and a pancreas and eye tissue recipient, the 46-year-old occupational therapy assistant is excited she was chosen to ride the float.
"I cried," she said.
She thought she was meeting with local Donate Life representatives to talk about an outreach and education effort she wants to initiate.
"They said, 'Will you represent us in the Rose Bowl parade?'" she said. "I really had no idea."
Ramos, along with her husband, daughter and daughter's friend, will fly to California on Dec. 28. They will help decorate the float, watch float judging and attend a gala.
"I'm going to practice my wannabe-Homecoming queen wave," she said.
The float will be adorned with photos of deceased organ and tissue donors. The people who will ride on the float are organ recipients, and those walking alongside will be living organ and tissue donors, Ramos said.
For the 2014 Donate Life Rose Parade Float, organizers chose to honor and recognize solely transplant recipients as float riders, which they have not done before, said Tony Sullivan, spokesman for Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network.
Those on the float usually are donor family members or a mix of recipients and donor family members, he said.
"As a pancreas and sclera (eye tissue) transplant recipient and an active volunteer for us who strongly advocates for organ and tissue donation by selflessly sharing her story, Linda was a perfect fit," Sullivan said.
She was selected for her "courage, service and advocacy" in light of the transplants she received, he said.
“Linda is and has been a very active Advocates for Hope volunteer for us in the Northwest Indiana area for many years,” Sullivan said.
Ramos' health story goes back to when she was 16 and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Although difficult to control, she managed it for 15 years.
“It wasn't until my pregnancy at 31 that everything started to spiral out of control,” she said.
She suffered congestive heart failure and kidney failure while pregnant. She went into labor early in an ordeal that gave her and her infant daughter only a 50 percent chance of survival. Her daughter spent three months in a neonatal intensive care unit, and Ramos began to recover from the conditions that came up during pregnancy.
“Two months after bringing her home, I found my retinas were detaching,” she said.
Doctors warned her she could go blind.
“That was my first experience with organ donation,” she said.
Using donated tissue, doctors “buckled” down her left eye and stabilized the other through laser treatment. Thinking the worst was behind her, Ramos soon developed hypoglycemia unawareness, which means her body did not give her signals when her blood sugar was low.
She couldn't walk or drive.
“At the time, I was losing all my independence,” she said.
Deemed as suffering from a life-threatening condition, she was put on a list to receive a pancreas. About two years later, she had the surgery, and her health improved drastically. She no longer has diabetes.
When Ramos received a second chance at life, she took off running. In the last four years, she has run 55 races and is involved with the Calumet Region Striders.
"I feel great," she said. "Better than I ever could have imagined. When you feel good every day, you take that for granted. Once I started feeling good, it was amazing. I said, 'I can't believe people feel like this every day.'"
She is involved in her daughter's life, to the extent a high school girl allows her mother to hang around.
"I wanted to be an actively engaged mom," she said, rattling off a host of parental leadership roles she has claimed, including assistant softball coach and room mom.
"When I was diabetic, I didn't have the energy," she said. Ramos has not taken insulin since the day she woke up after the pancreas transplant.
"My organ is doing great," she said.
She has blood work done every three months, and she takes immunosuppression medication to trick her body into thinking the donated pancreas is hers from birth.
That process makes her more susceptible to infections and viruses. But, Ramos said she never gets sick.
She and another transplant recipient host a transplant support group that meets at 6 p.m. the third Wednesday of the month in the conference center at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart.
She encourages people to register as organ and tissue donors.
"It's all about education," Ramos said. "Everything I do is to bring awareness. I have a happy ending. My story is great. There's 120,000 people just like me who have stories just like me, as compelling as mine. And they deserve a happy ending.”
Indiana residents can register at www.donatelifeindiana.org, and Illinois residents can register at www.giftofhope.org.