Erika Zak, the Portland mother who inspired millions with her perseverance and strength has lost her battle with cancer.
She died early on Friday during surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, her husband Scott Powers confirmed. She was 39.
Zak’s death came after five years of near-unimaginable pain and fighting, which culminated in a day of extreme hope, one that could finally give her life: on Thursday she received news that the liver transplant that she so desperately needed — and had fought for — was about to become a reality.
“Late yesterday the stars briefly aligned while we were at the hospital for an unrelated medical procedure and an organ miraculously became available right then for transplant. We were so excited and rushed our daughter to spend a half hour with Erika,” the family said in a statement released Friday, according to CNN. “She then quickly went into the OR, but deep into the surgery, her body couldn’t handle some of the trauma apparently. She died in surgery.”
Zak, who had been waiting for a liver for 15 months, leaves behind her a legacy of strength.
After winning a series of nearly inconceivable battles during the last years of her life, she became a symbol of persistence whose story captivated the nation.
About five years ago, after giving birth to her daughter Loïe, Zak was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer that had spread to her liver, CNN reported then.
She survived more than 70 rounds of chemotherapy, and was hospitalized 19 times in Oregon.
Zak also had to take on United Health Care, which had declined to cover her transplant. But the insurance giant changed its tone after she wrote UnitedHealth Group’s CEO David Wichmann a scathing letter telling him about the “shockingly incompetent manner” the insurer handled her case.
After that she also had to fight United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit that manages the U.S. organ transplant system under contract with the federal government.
According to The New York Times, Zak explained that UNOS had refused to grant her an emergency exception that would significantly increase her chances of receiving the liver transplant that was finally approved by United Health.
Her twin sister Jenna Zak shared the family’s pain on social media posts slamming UNOS and a “broken healthcare and donor system that has gone from bad to worse.”
Earlier this year her family moved across the country to Cleveland, Ohio to be near the Cleveland Clinic, in case a liver became available.
Her incredible resilience and attitude weren’t enough to endure the surgery, and Zak passed away in the early hours of Aug. 23.
“While our family is devastated by the loss of our beautiful wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend, we do want to express our deepest gratitude to all of those who have supported Erika and our family through these very difficult weeks, months and years,” a statement read. “Through her perseverance in life, Erika embodied hope and set an example of strength.”
The family is also asking people to sign up to become an organ donor at organdonor.gov.