Tina Serio still struggles to come to grips with the death of her younger sister more than a year ago at age 38. At the same time, it warms her heart to know Dawn Woods saved several other lives because she donated her organs.
"One of her kidneys was transplanted into a 53-year-old man," Serio said. "He's married, he's from New York, and has two children. Her other kidney went to a woman who's 50 years old. She waited three long years for a kidney."
Serio was one of many donor families and transplant recipients who shared their stories yesterday as part of an effort to urge greater participation in the organ donor registry during Donate Life month. Turns out Serio and her husband Michael Sweet have transplant stories of their own. He noticed her green "organ donor awareness" bracelet.
"It started a conversation that me and Michael had on our very first date," Serio said. "He shared a story with me about a liver transplant he had in 1995. It turned into a story that I shared with him. I'm a recipient of a tissue enhancement. I got it in my knee after a car accident. It allows me to walk, and has enhanced my life in so many ways, I can't even tell you."
Serio urges all families to have a conversation about organ donation, and to fill out a donor card. She says it can eliminate some of the stress and emotion when your loved ones know your wishes. Dr. Mark Laftavi agrees. He’s director of the pancreatic transplant program at Upstate University Hospital.
"We are going to die, there is no reason why we should take our organs away that can save a mother, a father, a child, to go back to their families and friends to lead a normal life. It's a very delicate issue. There should be no hesitation when it comes to the end of my life, that I don't hesitate to give another life to another patient."
A BIG DECISION
Upstate ER nurse Chuck Lewis learned he had kidney disease in 1990, and it slowly progressed to the point where he signed up for a transplant 20 years later. His siblings weren't a match, so he began dialysis in 2011. But a childhood friend offered to get checked, and it turned out he was a match. After the long process, they scheduled the transplant for March 2012. But Lewis received a call one night that another kidney was available for him…leading him to decide which one to take.
"We have a kidney for you. I said, 'I have a kidney.' I had 5 minutes to make up my mind. What am I going to do? Am I going to put my friend through the surgery or take this kidney. I decided to take my friend's kidney. I got nervous, I called him in the morning, and said, 'you know, I turned down a kidney, so I'm going to take your kidney.' His comment to me was, 'you damn well better take it or I'll give it to someone else.'"
Stories like Lewis’s are often an anomaly. Upstate University Hospital transplant surgeon Dr. Vaughn Whittaker says conversations like these can lead to saving lives…but don’t happen nearly enough.
"If we can overcome the barriers, including 'I don't like asking for anything from anyone,' or 'I think it will put my children at increased risk.' But, if we can help our recipients and families recognize it's safe to do this, we may be able to do more, and tap into this natural reservoir of goodness that exists in our population."
About 6,700 patients die every year in the U.S.while waiting for an organ transplant. The plea for more registered donors comes at a time when less than a quarter of New Yorkers over age 18 have enrolled. The national average is more than twice that at 51 percent.