Many healthcare professionals have been personally affected by donation and/or transplantation. You may have lost a loved one waiting for a transplant, had a loved one become a donor or have personally been the recipient of a transplant. We want to hear your stories. Please share your story through completing the form and submitting a picture.
One Family’s Courageous, Selfless Gift to My Father
Sandy Petruzzi – ICU Nurse Manager – VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System
I’ve been a Registered Nurse (RN) for over 23 years within the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Currently, I’m an ICU Nurse Manager. My journey with organ donation began over 27 years ago. At the age of 16, I was asked by the Pennsylvania DMV if I wanted to be an registered organ donor and without hesitation I said sure. I’ve been a registered organ donor ever since that day. I never realized how that decision at the age of 16 would come around to change my life nearly 10 years later.
In the Spring of 1997, my father, who had been suffering with a cough for several months, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy of unknown etiology. At a bedside family meeting, the physicians told my father, my mother, my two siblings and me that the only cure was a heart transplant. Immediately, the work-up began to get my father on the transplant list.
As his condition deteriorated, he had to remain in the hospital. Finally “the call” came on December 13, 1998. There was a donor in Ohio that was a match. My family rushed to the hospital to be at my father’s bedside. As an RN, I knew the risks, probably better than I really wanted to, but I knew what needed to be done for my father to survive his illness. At the time of his transplant, my siblings and I were all single with no children. I couldn’t fathom the thought of my father not being there for our weddings or to see his future grandchildren.
The transplant was a success and years later my father married off his 3 children and gained 6 grandchildren. This was something that never would have happened without the courageous, selfless gift that another family had given my family. Words cannot express our gratitude. Due to this experience, I co-chair my facility’s Donor Advisory Board. I work closely with the Center for Organ Recovery & Education (CORE) in educating ICU nurses, hospital staff and visitors on the importance of donation. I serve as my facility’s liaison to CORE in identifying potential donors and ensuring all potential donors are referred to CORE.
The Gift of Donation from My Past, Present and Future
Ashley Payne Davis – Professional Educator – Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency
I was 11-years-old. It was a moment that forever changed mine and my family’s life. Organ donation, a gift that completed shifted the course of my future, and became my life’s work and my passion. Nineteen years later, at 30, I have the wonderful privilege of working for an OPO in Louisiana as a Professional Educator for LOPA.
My dad loved life: he was active, he ran triathlons, he loved his job as a nuclear medicine technologist and he had the biggest smile. At a young age, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and he struggled with the symptoms of that disease. In 1996, he was in need of a liver transplant. A year later, organ donation saved his life. He received a liver transplant by Dr. Zibari at Willis-Knighton Health System in Shreveport, LA. My mom, two sisters and I were given the greatest gift. Thanks to an organ donor, we were given several more fulfilling and loving years with my Dad. It was amazing to see how his transplant affected my entire family. The transplant gave new life not only to my Dad, but to us all. In 2000, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. In 2002, the cancer came back, and he passed away at 44-years-old.
As I reflect on my Dad’s life, I realize how precious those five years were. If my father had not received a liver transplant, my youngest sister likely would have no memories of him. I will be forever grateful she is able to remember his kind spirit, his zest for life, his laugh, his graciousness and his love for his family and friends. In that precious time – five years – he taught me to drive, we traveled to the beach for vacations and he came to our dance recitals. He showed his wife and three daughters what this life is all about.
This is where my passion started. Organ donation – a gift that came into my life a second time. My grandfather received a heart transplant in 1998. My grandfather was given the heart of a 16-year-old. After his transplant my grandfather, Paw Paw, would think he was young and hip because he was now “young at heart”. He may have been slightly mistaken on that one! Paw Paw lived a fulfilling 15 years with his new heart!
In 2013, organ donation, thrust its way into my life again. In the fall of 2013 my uncle passed away at a hospital where I work regularly. He suffered from a stroke and was declared brain dead. This time, being on the other side of organ donation, was different and new. I feel blessed to have had my co-workers who supported me throughout the entire process. We were able to honor his wishes of being a donor. He became an organ, tissue and eye donor. I feel thankful for this moment, because it’s when life came “full circle.” The very same doctor who gave my dad his liver transplant was the recovering surgeon for my uncle. For my family and I, this meant the world to us. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my dad and the others in my family affected by organ donation. It drives me. It supports me. I thank God for this opportunity to share my story. My dad, my grandfather and my uncle live on through me and my family. I will forever cherish that feeling.
2 Donors – One Family
Debra Cooper – Chief Quality & Regulatory Officer – Lifebanc
My mother, Anita, was a beautiful, loving, and ambitious mother, grandmother, wife, aunt, teacher, and sister. She babysat her grandchildren every day. She loved sewing and was an excellent seamstress, sewing wedding gowns as well as baptismal gowns and communion dresses for her grandchildren. She looked forward to the day she would sew her granddaughters’ wedding gowns, Unfortunately, that was not meant to be but in her death at age 67 she gave that kind of future opportunity to 5 others through organ donation.
Gus, my brother in law, was a gregarious, happy go lucky, and compassionate son, brother, uncle, godfather, and friend to all. He lived each moment as if it was his last – his life was unfortunately taken by another. However, in his untimely death he was able to restore the sight to 2 others and save another through his heart valve donation.
Every year we celebrate their lives and the gifts they gave on our joint team for Lifebanc’s Annual Gift of Life Walk and Run – Anita’s Angels and Gus Gang!! They are both our heroes forevermore !! And I have dedicated the rest of my career in this industry to supporting and spreading the mission they so gladly gave so much for.
My Mom, My Best Friend
Isabel Aguirre – Living Donor Coordinator/Clinical Coordinator – Las Palmas Medical Center
I remember it like it was yesterday, hearing my mom’s tearful voice on the other end of the phone telling me that the doctor had told her that her kidneys were no longer working and she was going to need dialysis. Living in different states was hard enough but after hearing that news I felt so helpless. I flew out to see my mom and was heartbroken to see my mother with a catheter coming out of her chest and connected to a huge machine. I didn’t understand what was going on and as months passed I began to see my strong and vivacious mother become this weak and frail woman. Throughout the following four years I took time off from college and would go visit my mother. During this time I had planned to major in education but I desired to have a true understanding of what was happening to my mother so I decided to change my major to nursing. In the middle of my second semester of school my mom told me that she was going to need a kidney transplant. I contacted her transplant center in Massachusetts and told them I wanted to donate, they told me I was too young and they were going to start with other family members. I persisted knowing that most of my mother’s siblings were diabetic and had health issues. After two family members were denied, I was finally allowed to start the process. My whole focus was getting my mom transplanted as soon as possible. It was discouraging to have the transplant postponed two times due to my mother being ill but we kept our faith in God that everything would work out. On April 8, 2004, God answered my prayer and used me to help give my mom her life back. It wasn’t long before I began to see that strong and vivacious woman I’ve always known return. My mother is so brave and courageous for everything she has had to endure. I’m so thankful for having her in my life, she’s not only my mother, she’s my best friend. This experience has lead me into the transplant field where I can share my story with both recipients and donors. I think it means something to a donor when I can say that I can relate because I’ve been through it. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
My Donation Story
Tasha Horton – Manager of Hospital Donation Services – LifeGift
When I was in nursing school, my best friend since the 4th grade was the designated driver of a group of her friends and they were coming back from Austin to San Marcos where they attended college. Unfortunately, my best friend Johanna fell asleep and hit a tree. Her friends in the car were all uninjured, but Johanna was not. She suffered severe head trauma and deteriorated to brain death. Her parents knew that she would want to help people and waited for her to become brain dead. She died in 1993 and prior to the practice of donation after circulatory determination of death (DCD). I was very angry at how long the process was taking. I hated seeing her parents suffering while she was in that ICU bed. At the time I thought organ donation was very cruel to put a family through that extended the period of anguish. I was in nursing school and very inexperienced. I had no idea what it meant. Shortly after her death her parents had me over to read her outcome letter which completely changed my views on organ donation. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be able to offer family’s like Johanna’s the same amazing opportunity to give the gift of life and have their love one live on. Johanna was a 7 organ donor. She will always be my hero and I miss her everyday.
My Life as a Donor, Recipient and Donor Family Member
Cheryl McGee-Hills – Community Educator – Louisiana Organ Procurement Organization
In 1993, my husband Roderick McGee, Sr. began dialysis due to renal failure. He was placed on the wait list. My brother, Lionel Brazile, Jr. experience a terrible headache and was rushed to the ER in 1997. He passed away two days later of an aneurysm. Our family was approached for consent. We said yes and asked for direct donation for Roderick. After the tests, there was a match. My husband received my brother’s kidney and 3 other individuals in 4 states received his other organs.
Roderick and I became volunteers in 1998 with LOPA until his death in 2001. Roderick’s corneas were donated and two people received their eye sight.
In 2012, my sister Sheila Brazile passed of congestive heart failure. We donated tissue.
On October 21, 2001, I became a full time employee with LOPA. I share my story in the community as a donor, recipient and donor family member. The gift of life is amazing …
Best Gift I Gave My Father:
Sarah Koohmaraie – Liver Transplant Nurse Coordinator – Texas Children’s Hospital
During a routine medical appointment, my father’s creatinine levels were so elevated that he was sent to a nephrology team for further evaluation. After a biopsy, my father learned he would need a kidney transplant. He developed kidney failure as a result of his ulcerative colitis medication. At the time, I was in nursing school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. When he shared the news with me, I wanted to know our options.
We discussed the option of living donation and I voiced interest in becoming a donor. Due to the risks involved, my parents strongly discouraged me, but I was persistent. If there was a way I could help my father, I knew I had to try! I knew I wanted to be his donor. Unbeknownst to my parents, I called my birth hospital to find out my blood type, and sure enough, our blood types were compatible! Immediately, I called the transplant center to start the evaluation process. As I began the extensive medical evaluation, I was also attending school full time, so it was quite the juggling act. Trying to keep a secret this big from my parents was pretty difficult. But in the end, it was totally worth it.
In October 2007, two amazing things happened: First, I found out I was a perfect match and I would be able to donate one of my kidneys to my father. Secondly, I also accepted my first nursing job on the solid organ transplant unit. Once I realized I was a perfect match, I called my father and told him we were scheduling surgery in December. As you can you can imagine he was taken by surprise. “Surgery, what surgery?” he asked. I told him I had gone through all the testing and was approved to be his donor. After a family discussion and a lot of persuasion, my family agreed, with my father being the most reluctant.
That December, as our surgery date approached, I was finishing up my nursing degree and upon graduation I would begin my career as a transplant nurse. At this point, I realized this situation was meant to be. I was meant to be my father’s donor and a transplant nurse. My father and I had surgery on Dec. 26, 2007.
Since the transplant, my father has had a few bumps in the road – including multiple surgeries and hospital admissions – but overall he is doing very well. These struggles brought on nervousness and anxiety for my father and family. Being both a nurse and the daughter of a transplant recipient has allowed me to understand both sides of transplantation. As a family, we have gone through evaluations, surgery and recovery, as well as times when everything is going smoothly. This gives me the ability to understand the emotions my patients and families go through. I understand the nervousness that comes with routine lab draws, scheduled visits, procedures that are part of transplant and the joyfulness of when everything is going well.
At the age of 61, my father is very active. He is now running half marathons and cycling, these are passions we both share. The time that my father and I share together while exercising is something I cherish. It is amazing be able to see him doing so well and enjoying life. As for me, I’ve been working as a transplant nurse for eight years and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love every aspect of transplant and the amazing transplant team members at Texas Children’s!
My Dad’s Journey:
Vanessa Bershad – Business & Strategy Manager – Florida Hospital Transplant Institute
In January 1998, when I was a freshman in high school, my dad became very ill and collapsed at work. We soon learned he was suffering from end-stage liver failure with unknown causes. By April of the same year, we were told he would need a liver transplant in order to survive. By the end of May, we were on the wait list as a Status 1A. Daddy was discharged home to wait on June 1 and we weren’t sure dad would survive. On June 4th, our call came. This gift changed our lives forever. Dad was sent home for good 2 weeks later. This gift gave us 17.5 more years as a family. He saw us graduate high school, college, get married, have babies and he celebrated 41 years married to our mom. My life has been molded by the power and gift of donation and transplant. Daddy was called to Heaven last November and I am eternally grateful for the blessing of life his donor and donor family gave to us 18 years ago.
A Happy Ending:
Breianna Simpson – Family Services Coordinator – Indiana Donor Network
As a soon-to-be senior in highschool, I thought I knew what direction my life was going. I had already been accepted into college, picked my major, and was ready to get started with my life. I was going to be a Neurologist. The summer before my senior year, my 4-year old sister, Abbie, was suddenly diagnosed with inflammatory myofibroblastoma (cancer of the soft muscle tissue) and my family was thrown upside down. Her cancer was concentrated in the ducts of her liver. She underwent multiple surgeries to lessen her symptoms. They tried removing the tumor and inserting shunts to help bile flow through but everything was temporary. My family had the realization the only way for her to have a chance of surviving, was to let her get very sick and move to the top of a transplant list…and wait. Wait for a liver to save her life. Luckily, the wait wasn’t long. Within 4 months, she had her transplant. She has never been better! After this experience, I changed my major to Nursing in hopes I could one day work with donor families. I dedicated my nursing career to researching organ donation and educating my peers about the benefits of organ and tissue graft donation. During my internship my last semester of college, I met an Indiana Donor Network employee who forwarded my resume. The rest is history. I have not had the chance to thank her donor family, but every family I work with now, as a Family Services Coordinator, could have been the one that saved my sisters life. So I thank them. I have found my true calling in life and I am extremely grateful this donation story has a happy ending.
Chad Southward – Policy Manager & Policy Oversight Committee (POC) Liaison – United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
I was born with Cystic Fibrosis. Being a progressive disease, I knew that I would eventually need a double lung transplant. I never imagined I would need 2 transplants. I received my first double lung transplant in 2004 and my second in 2010, after a bout with influenza, RSV, and pneumonia. After my transplants, I was told I could no longer teach middle school due to the sickness of the children and my immunity. I joined the UNOS team in 2011 as an IT trainer. I quickly fell in love with the behind the scenes mission of UNOS for organ transplant. I have since designed curriculums for transplant hospitals and now serve as policy manager and committee liaison to the Policy Oversight Committee. Transplant has defined me – not in terms of health or medications – but in terms of hope, optimism, and selflessness.
Julie Landon – Organ Donation Coordinator – Carolina Donor Services
From a very early age, I developed an interest in organ donation from watching my dad work with the Lion’s Club to promote donation and register donors. I was so excited to mark my driver’s license with a red heart when I turned 16! I didn’t really think of it again, I just assumed when it was time, my organs would go to someone who was in need of a transplant.
I started working for Carolina Donor Services as an Organ Donation Coordinator (ODC) in June, 1998. I had been working as an Emergency Room nurse, and was being trained to talk to families who’s loved one was in a position to become a donor. During the training, I learned of an open position for an ODC and decided to apply. Three weeks later, I started my new job, and have loved it right from the start. I felt such admiration for the organ donors and their families, who at the darkest moments in their life have made the selfless decision to save the life of someone waiting for a transplant. To know the work I do means someone will have the chance to receive that lifesaving transplant is very gratifying. My resolve to be an organ donor became even stronger after hearing donor families talk about the comfort and strength that came from their decision for donation. It was through my work that I realized it may not be my very last selfless act; I could indeed be a living donor.
As an ODC, I spent a lot of time in Intensive Care Units, and get to know the staff quite well. I became friends with Sandi, a nurse that works in a trauma ICU. During the development of this friendship, I learned that Sandi had a very personal interest in donation, her husband, Terry, would eventually need a kidney transplant. I just knew that this was going to be my opportunity. After being extremely nosy, I discovered that I had the same blood type as Terry, another sign that this was my chance! A day that Sandi and I were working together I casually mentioned to her that when Terry needed a new kidney, I would be willing to donate one of mine to him, as a living donor. Imagine both of our surprise when just a short time later it was discovered that Terry would need a transplant sooner rather than later. With the support of my family and CDS, in June 2006 I underwent a donor nephrectomy and Terry received his new kidney. It is extremely humbling and gratifying to know that Terry is alive and well because I was able to give him the gift of life. My reward is seeing Terry and Sandi and their daughters having fun and enjoying life.
After 18 years of working at Carolina Donor Services, I’m still amazed at the strength of donor families and the miracles of the transplants that occur due to their selfless generosity. Organ donation was one of the best decisions I ever made!
Ginger DeLario, Clinical Education Coordinator for Carolina Donor Services, the region’s federally designated organ procurement organization, donated a kidney to a man she barely knew. She felt it was one more thing she could do to help the ever- growing transplant waiting list.
“People say that I am a hero. It doesn’t feel like that to me,” Ginger said. Ginger has worked at Carolina Donor Services for many years. When she started in June of 2000 there were almost 63,000 people on the National Transplant Waiting List. Today, there are over 121,000. “There simply are not enough organs to go around and it breaks my heart to know that before the clock strikes midnight tonight, 18 people will have died because they did not get the organ they needed to live,” Ginger said.
When Ginger’s next door neighbor asked her if she would talk to his friend in New York, who was on dialysis due to kidney failure and in need of a kidney transplant, she didn’t really think much about it. But when she found out that they shared the same rare blood type, it started weighing heavily on her heart. She didn’t act right away. She talked to her husband about it. She talked to her doctor about it. She even talked to a co-worker who had donated a kidney several years earlier about her experience. It was several months before she went in to be tested. Her husband was also tested as he has the same rare blood type.
“When the test results came back, I was the better match. I matched the recipient as if I were his daughter. I took a long time to make up my mind to donate. Yet somewhere today, there will be someone in a car accident, with a head injury and their family will be called to the hospital. They were expecting them home for dinner, but instead, they will be saying goodbye. They won’t have the same time I had to make the decision about donation,” Ginger said. “At the worst possible time in their lives, at a time when their loved one cannot be saved, they will make a decision to save someone else through organ and/or tissue donation. Those are the real heroes…not me.”
It was a sunny day in New York City. Ginger was in a good mood, free of stress, and had weighed her decision for months, so she donated a kidney to man who needed one to live. Not because she wanted to donate a kidney, but because she didn’t want to see him die knowing she could have done something to save him. She says, “That doesn’t make me a hero, it just makes me a normal human being.”
Libbie Harrison – Family Services Coordinator – Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency
My son, Justin, was a beautiful, blue-eyed, kind hearted, eager young man. He loved everything baseball. He was a six-foot, all-star athlete overflowing with life.
Our story…Justin’s story…began in 1996 when Justin’s PawPaw died waiting for a heart transplant. Justin began exploring a subject that most adults shy away from, yet he embraced it with youthful passion. His simple conclusion was “If more people knew about organ donation, my PawPaw would still be alive. Mama, we gotta tell people.” Never underestimate the power of a teenage voice! Their unique and unblemished view can change the world as we know it.
That Wednesday started just like every other school day. One small difference – I wasn’t taking Justin to school. He was riding in his best friend’s new truck. I remember an enthusiastic “I love you, Mom. See ya later.” I smiled at the joy I could hear in his voice. I hope he heard my “I love you too, Buddy. Have a great day!” before he closed the door. That would be my last conversation with my boy.
Justin jumped into the back of a non-moving truck to talk to some friends…tripped, fell and hit his head. Justin was pronounced brain dead later that night. As I sat there…holding his hand, begging him to wake up, pleading with God to spare my child…I realized Justin wasn’t going home with me.
Justin saved five lives and restored sight for two people in August 1997. I have had the honor of meeting Marilyn Thorn, the wonderful woman who received Justin’s heart. That heart grew inside of me for nine months…then beat inside of my beautiful son for 15 ½ years. That same heart has given Marilyn almost 19 more years with her family. I can’t explain how comforting it is to feel his…her…their heart beating!
I have never regretted honoring Justin’s wishes for organ donation. In fact, I believe that donation has been my greatest source of strength. Not a day goes by that I do not do something to promote donation. It’s what I have left that I can do for Justin. My son, Justin David Harrison, is my Hero!