Independence Day – Life and Death – Organ Donors, Angels and Wings

Today is Independence Day – the 4th of July – where we in the US celebrate the birth of our nation.  However, my cousin is celebrating a very different sort of victory today – a very personal Independence Day – his life.

This week, an epic life and death battle took place – in an operating room. The forces of good battling evil – in this case, the evil of a crippling genetic disease…and time. My cousin lost the genetic lottery, but this week…

Good won!

My cousin received a kidney transplant from a living donor after 18 months of not-so-patiently waiting. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait any longer for a cadaver donor – a wait that was fruitless for my brother in 2012. My brother, Dave, died waiting. There aren’t enough donor angels who have earned their wings to go around.

My Brother

My brother needed a liver transplant. Because the liver can regenerate itself, live donors can donate part of their liver to recipients, and both will grow normal livers. Kidneys, on the other hand, don’t regenerate, but people can live with only one kidney, so living donors can contribute a kidney and live the rest of their life just fine.

However, in my brother’s case, he couldn’t have a living donor – even if someone was willing, and I was willing to be his donor. Why? Because when he became very ill and couldn’t work due to liver failure, he also didn’t have insurance. He was a long-haul truck driver and when you can’t work, you don’t have insurance – even if you had insurance originally. He worked his entire life, until he couldn’t anymore. Then, much to his chagrin, he had to enroll in Medicaid, the safety net to protect our vulnerable population. He didn’t like this one bit, but thank goodness Medicaid was available for him, because otherwise, he would have had no care at all.

But there was a catch – Medicaid only pays for cadaver donor transplants – not living donor transplants – because the cost of two patients is more than the cost of one patient. My insurance said that they don’t pay for voluntary surgeries of this type – and that the recipient’s insurance would have to pay. So – Catch 22.

My brother died.

There aren’t enough cadaver donors.

Let that soak in for a minute.

Dave died because someone who was already dead didn’t think ahead of time to donate their organs or perhaps didn’t know how much good they could still do after their death.

Eighteen People

Eighteen people die every single day in the US alone due to lack of an organ for transplant. Every one of those 18 people is someone’s loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a parent – someone with a family that loves and needs them. Someone who didn’t need to die.

Like my brother who was also a husband and father.

Every donor can save at least 8 lives with vital organs and affect the lives of up to 50 more who need procedures like skin grafts or corneal transplants.

Eight. People. Will. Live.

Imagine giving the ultimate gift of life to eight humans, and joy to many more through saving their lives.

Just imagine.

If you could wave your magic wand and save those people if it cost you absolutely nothing – would you?

Everyone dies eventually, and many unexpectedly die every day. If you’re dead – YOU certainly don’t need and can’t use those organs anymore. But others can, and are dying, no pun, to get them. So please, PLEASE, consider becoming a donor. You can save the lives of many people, even as you earn your wings. Part of you can live on – providing life for others.

It’s a gift you can give with absolutely no cost to yourself or anyone you love.

There is no reason not to.

You have that magic wand!

Living Donors

And then there are the living donors. These people are true heroes in every sense of the word.

My cousin who had his transplant this week would surely have died waiting for a cadaver donor. He nearly died just waiting for his living donor to get through the qualification process and then be paired with another couple of people. The person willing to be my cousin’s donor didn’t match him, so they were paired with another recipient and donor who did match.

Pairing takes place when the person willing to be your donor doesn’t match you, so you can’t have their organ, but they match someone else whose donor matches you. So they swap.

In his case, my cousin and his donor were in Michigan, and their pair donor and recipient were in North Dakota.

The donor kidneys were removed first, beginning about 6 AM, then flown, one on Delta with the crew and one on a charter plane between Michigan and North Dakota, then helicoptered from the airports to the hospitals where the donor kidneys were checked out by the surgeons to assure they are undamaged after their flight.

You can see the temperature controlled organ transport case, below. It even got it’s own wheelchair!

After the kidneys were confirmed to be in good shape, the recipient surgeries began, late in the afternoon. It was almost 11 PM before the recipient surgeries were complete. An extremely long and emotion-filled 16-hour day to save the lives of two people where even so much as a sneeze would have meant that it didn’t happen at all.

My cousin who received the donor kidney is 41 years old, a single dad with two children. He has, in essence, received a second life – thanks to the two donors.

Living donors are heroes – angels long before they earn their heavenly wings. God bless those living donors who are willing to endure pain and sacrifice part of their body so another might live.

However, if we had enough cadaver donors, we wouldn’t need living donors.

Gift of Life Flag

In 2016, hospitals and transplant centers performing organ transplants began flying a Gift of Life flag when transplants are taking place.  Seeing this flag signifies to the community that someone has become a donor, meaning that either a family, in the case of a death, or a living donor, has made a very difficult and benevolent decision, giving their organ and with it, bestowing life on another.

The Gift of Life flag flying as seen from my cousin’s hospital room, honoring both the donor and recipient!

I believe that the donor family receives the flag.

It’s a beacon of light…

A flag of hope…

You can read more about the Gift of Life Flag tradition here.

How Can You Help?

We often don’t think about organ donation until it hits home. When it does, it’s because a loved one is desperately ill and needs a transplant. We may not be able to make a difference to them that day, but one day, each and every one of us can make that difference through after-life donation.

Please, PLEASE, become an organ donor after your death. With more cadaver donors, we wouldn’t need live donors. Desperately ill people wouldn’t have to wait so long for transplants – unable to work, jeopardizing their family’s financial circumstances. Many lose their homes while waiting for a donor.

My brother’s home went into foreclosure, until I bought it out of foreclosure, affording him the opportunity to live there until his death. It hurt his pride and damaged his dignity, but at least he wasn’t homeless too. I couldn’t give him part of my liver, but at least I could salvage his home.

Most importantly, with enough cadaver donors, people wouldn’t have to die waiting. Some people are so ill by the time that a donor is located that they are, in a horrible irony, too sick to have the surgery.

Signing up for organ donation is easy to do. On your driver’s license, you can indicate your donor status. Furthermore, be sure your family is aware of your wishes, as well as your medical team.

Once you don’t need your pieces and parts anymore, donating them to someone who will die otherwise is the greatest legacy of life, of love, you can leave.

You can begin by reading about organ donation, how it works, and signing up at:

Have concerns? They provide a page to answer questions too.

You can also read about organ donation here:

I’m a donor.  Are you?

It’s easy to be someone’s angel!



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