By Kelly Daniel
For the Opelika
East Alabama Medical Center’s annual Donate Life ceremony honored those who have made the selfless choice to save lives and help families through organ donation. During the ceremony on April 11, two families that have been touched by organ donation shared their stories about the lifesaving practice and the difference that donation has made in their lives.
While data shows the great need for more people to become donors and the number of lives saved each year, the true stories of people whose lives have been saved by this act of generosity go further toward illustrating the enormous impact that one donated organ can have.
For Tom Bomberger, a transplant was the only treatment option for his nonalcoholic liver disease, one which gave him the opportunity to spend time with grandchildren who would have otherwise not gotten the chance to meet him. Bomberger’s daughter Kelli Pruitt shared the heartbreaking truth of only having one option in which her father survived. “No matter how great the will and desire to live, we knew that he wouldn’t survive without someone making the choice to donate,” Pruitt said.
As his condition progressed, Bomberger suffered from cognitive symptoms that required him to stop working at the business he owned, and then later a lack of comprehension of what was going on around him. While fewer than half of individuals on liver transplant waitlist receive on each year, a donor was found before Bomberger became too sick to receive a liver transplant. His daughter said that because the gift of a liver gave him a second chance at life with his family, he considers the date of the transplant to be his second birthday.
“Beyond the fact that I am here and present today, rather than the alternative that awaited me within months of my surgery, I have gotten to live my life again. I’ve met my three newest grandchildren,”
Pruitt said, reading her father’s statement to the audience.
For Nate Puckett,who was diagnosed with renal failure as a child, the first kidney that he received had begun to fail after 18 years, making it necessary to undertake dialysis, which is a physically draining and expensive procedure that makes it difficult to enjoy life and to work.
“My life came to a complete halt. I was put on hemodialysis three days a week and unable to work, and unable to have the life that a 31 year old should have,” Puckett said.
A kidney transplant would provide for a longer life and better quality of life compared to dialysis.
However, Puckett would have needed to wait around five years to get a kidney from the national waitlist, which was time that he didn’t have to wait.
To receive the kidney that he needed, he would need to find a friend or family member willing to donate. However, none of his family members were found to be a match.
Fortunately, Puckett’s family found programs that work with transplant patients in his situation, with family members who wish to donate but are not a match for their loved ones. These programs analyze blood and urine samples of donors to find compatible matches, and then exchanging kidneys between the families of organ recipients.
Nate’s aunt Carol Dudley had previously offered to donate to her nephew, and while she was not a match for Puckett, she was eligible to be a donor through the matching programs. She sent in her samples to Emory Healthcare and University of Alabama at Birmingham and waited until they found a match.
After months of testing, Dudley finally received a call saying that a donor had been found for her nephew and that a transplant patient had been found for whom she could be a donor. Dudley’s kidney was removed and sent to a patient in need, while Puckett’s kidney was delivered to him, enabling him to resume living a full and healthy life.
Leaders from EAMC and Lee County communities were present at the ceremony. EAMC CEO Laura Grill began the ceremony by stressing the importance of organ donation both locally and statewide.
Auburn Mayor Ron Anders and Opelika City Councilwoman Patsy Jones were in attendance at the ceremony, emphasizing the critical need for organ donors in East Alabama and proclaiming April as official Donate Life Month for the cities of Auburn and Opelika.
“One of the most meaningful gifts a human being can bestow upon another is the gift of life,” Jones said.
Jones and Anders shared the heartbreaking statistics illustrating that the number of donated organs isn’t nearly great enough to meet the need of those with failing organs, which results in death for those who do not receive organs in time.
“In 2018, more than 36,000 transplants brought new life to patients and their families and their communities from more than 10,000 deceased and 6800 living donors,” Anders said. “Sadly 8000 candidates die each year, 22 people a day, almost one person an hour because the organs they need are not donated in time.”
Dudley said that resources are available for anyone thinking of becoming a donor who might be hesitating for financial reasons. The donor programs provide financial assistance for travel, lodging, and even potentially for lost pay.
Dudley added that for her, recovery from the kidney transplant surgery was uncomplicated and didn’t result in much pain. While Dudley’s husband and children were understandably worried about her undergoing surgery to donate the kidney, she said that her family supported her decision that would transform her nephew’s life for the better and help another patient and family in the same situation.
April is National Donate Life Month, which is dedicated to educating the public on organ donation and answering the concerns that often arise when one is considering becoming an organ donor. To help with the cause of organ donation, Donate Life America offers information on how to register to become an organ donor after death, as well as how to become a living donor.
“Living donation offers another choice for transplant candidates, and it saves two lives: the recipient and the next one on the deceased organ waiting list,” Donate Life America explains on their web page. “Even better, kidney and liver patients who are able to receive a living donor transplant can receive the best quality organ much sooner, often in less than a year.”
For more information on how to become another donor or on more ways to get involved, visit https://www.donatelife.net/. The full video of the Donate Life ceremony can be found on EAMC’s Facebook page. (https://www.facebook.com/EAMCnow/).