Recognizing the Gift of Life from Organ Donors

By Lauren Wanko

Rich Hayes’ liver failed in 2010 from autoimmune hepatitis.

“My body was like a time bomb. So the only thing that was going to save my life at that point was a liver transplant,” he said.

His name had been added to the transplant waiting list in 2009. The then 55-year-old was flooded with emotions.

“You know you feed guilty. I didn’t want anyone to have to die in order for me to live,” he said.

The Princeton Junction resident says he finally came to terms with the fact that getting the transplant wasn’t in his control. Seven months later, he got the call from his doctor and had transplant surgery immediately after that.

“To me I don’t think there isn’t any greater gift you can give someone then to give them the gift of life,” Hayes said.

Nationwide more than 124,000 people are on the organ donation waiting list.

“In New Jersey that number’s approaching 5,000 and the organ in the greatest demand is the kidney,” said Melissa Peck from New Jersey Sharing Network.

New Jersey Sharing Network, a non-profit that arranges for organ and tissue transplants in the state, says residents can often wait five to seven years for a kidney transplant.

“On average every day across the country about 21 people pass away from that national waiting list,” Peck said.

The hospital notifies New Jersey Sharing Network after they’ve identified a patient who may be an organ donor. A Sharing Network team then conducts their own assessment.

“We do an evaluation to make sure that patient is medically suitable,” Peck said.

To be an organ donor, the candidate must have died in the hospital and been on life support as a result of a serious brain injury. If it’s determined the patient could be a donor, a team guides the families through the decision making process.

“Oftentimes people haven’t designated it on their driver license so at that point there needs to be an ask of the family whether this is something that would really be a tribute to this person’s life or not,” said Ted Taylor, Director of Pastoral Care and Training at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.

There are two types of donations — tissue and organ. An organ donor can save up to eight lives.

“Because we’re able to recover the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and small intestines,” explained Peck.

One tissue donor can enhance the lives of over 50 recipients.

While transplants aren’t done at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, patients do have the opportunity to donate.

In 2014, 750 people benefited from tissue donations that came from RWJ Hamilton patients. Nina Roberts, director of critical care, lost her 22-year-old son Timmy to a motorcycle crash.

“You know just when you least expect it, in a second flat your life can change. My son was pronounced brain dead a few weeks into his care,” Roberts said.

Timmy elected to designate himself as an organ donor when he received his driver’s license.

“Timmy was able to save lives because of his selfless donation,” Roberts said.

When asked how it makes her feel knowing there’s people living and healthy because of her son, Roberts said, “It gives comfort in the grief.”

“You hear of the stories of young people being organ donors and the legacies that they establish having lived sometimes just a few short years. Their legacies will go for generations. It’s extraordinary that gift that can be given,” Hayes said.