Renewing your driver’s license doesn’t require much of you- either a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles or AAA. It’s relatively little effort for something that you need most days. Those on the waiting list for a new organ also know about need. For them, the decreased function of a critical organ means either dramatically decreased quality of life or ultimately, death. Therefore, when renewing your license, another “must” should be designating yourself as an organ and tissue donor.
“License transactions, whether someone is renewing or receiving a license for the first time, contribute the most donor registration numbers. Over 95% of the people in the state who join the Donor Registry do it either at DMV or AAA,” said Caitlyn Bernabucci, Public Education Specialist for LifeChoice Donor Services. “The people working inside our DMV and AAA Offices do a great job driving this initiative and saving lives.”
LifeChoice Donor Services and Donate Life CT, in partnership with the CT Department of Motor Vehicles, encourage DMV and AAA staff to ask every license customer if they would like to join the Donor Registry. Each DMV and AAA employee is provided information about the importance of donation and resources to make available to the public.
In Connecticut, approximately 42% of Connecticut residents say “yes” to joining the Donor Registry at DMV or AAA . Several DMV and AAA branches lead the way when it comes to donor registration with registration rates as high as 60%. The AAA office in Avon and the Old Saybrook and Willimantic Department of Motor Vehicles Branches have the highest designation rates in the state. The Ambassadors serving these locations, volunteers trained to work with the DMV and AAA on donor registration, might be some of the inspiration behind the achievement.
The Old Saybrook AAA currently has one of the highest organ donation registration rates in the state at 50%. As Old Saybrook’s Ambassadors, Maria Loss and Sandy Clarke visit the branch regularly with information, Donate Life supplies and treats. Both of these women understand firsthand how critical the donor registry is as both recently received life-saving double lung transplants. Loss suffers from a genetic disorder called Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency or Alpha-1 for short, while Clarke has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
“I was diagnosed with Alpha-1 at age 42. After 10 years of lung function decline and various treatments and surgery, I was unable to work or function and was on oxygen 24 hours per day,” said Loss. “My quality of life was rapidly worsening, and I was forced to retire from 30 years of teaching.“
It was clear a transplant was a required intervention for Loss. After only a month on the wait list a call came that two lungs were available, however, they were ultimately deemed not viable. One month later, a suitable set of lungs became available.
“There are no words to describe the amazing feeling of taking full breaths after years of struggling,” adds Loss. “I was walking with a walker after 36 hours with no oxygen.”
Clarke on the other hand was diagnosed with COPD at 35 years old, developed lung cancer and had the right upper lobe of her lung removed. The decrease in lung capacity and the COPD made things so much worse that by 2001, her doctor advised her to stop working and conserve her limited energy. That winter she was in and out of the hospital every other week and soon thereafter, went on oxygen 24 hours per day.
“I thought my lot in life was just to keep getting sicker until I finally died,” said Clarke. “After dropping down to 89 pounds and being put on the transplant waiting list, a lucky lung match came to me after a 7 ½ year wait. I can now breathe, exercise, grocery shop, clean the house, and hop in the car without worrying if I have enough oxygen to get there and back. Life is fun, life is good and every day, no matter how I am feeling is better than my best day before transplant!”
These women’s dramatic turn in health is all thanks to someone else’s decision to become a donor.
“I simply wouldn't be alive were it not for the selfless decision by the donor and their family,” adds Loss. “I am so grateful that at the time of their personal tragedy, they could make such a courageous decision. I now am living my second chance, and deeply appreciate their precious gift. I keep them in my prayers daily, and hope that one day they could know that it wasn't only me that received a transplant, but my entire family.”
Now Maria and Sandy are able to give back and encourage others to donate.
Judith Baxter is DMV Ambassador in Willimantic, where staff are regularly celebrated for achieving a 54% designation rate. Baxter also brings a special perspective to her post. When her 13-year-old daughter Becca died suddenly, Judith and her family made the decision to give an amazing gift.
“When presented with the question at the hospital, we asked ourselves, “What would Becca do?” Becca loved softball, basketball and playing the flute, but most of all, she loved being with people - her family and friends,” said Judith Baxter. “ So, when faced with the decision of donation, we thought about what Becca valued most. Then, the decision was clear.”
Becca’s gift was tissue. She gave her corneas and heart valves. Her family learned that her corneas restored sight to two people.
“When we made the decision, we didn’t realize the long-reaching positive effect it would have on our lives and the lives of our family and friends,” Judith said. “I am a DMV Ambassador for donation in our area, but Becca has become the true ambassador - the impetus for education and discussion about organ/tissue donation in a wide circle of family and friends. Knowing that our “glitter girl” gave hope to others after her death, and has been an ambassador for others, has helped us to heal.”
The numbers of DMV registered donors are tracked quarterly. The Avon AAA Office currently holds the highest donor registration rate in the state at 60%. Beth Bradley helps to drive those numbers, as she is an Ambassador with heart, a brand new heart.
“One day I felt a chest pain so strong that I was sure I was having a heart attack. I went to a hospital and was admitted,” she said. “They performed an angiogram on me to check for blockages, and all went wrong. An angiogram is done commonly, and there is a 1/19,000 chance that something would go wrong. My major coronary artery was bisected, bent like a straw, and my heart was ruined.”
She was told she would need a new heart. During her 22-month wait, she was put on VAD'S, Ventricular Assist Devices, and had to live her life plugged into a wall, or later, when the machine was upgraded to a Heart Mate, walking around with battery packs. The call she desperately wanted finally came on Father's Day of 2008.
“I was at a party at my sister's house in Torrington. The doctors at Mass General said, "We have your heart. Come now!"
After a long surgery she woke up and immediately felt so much better. There were no wires coming out of her body. She also felt instantly connected to her donor.
“Every night I pray for my donors' family. I write to them twice a year. But I am making the most of this gift by keeping extra healthy.”
For those who haven’t considered organ donation before she offers this message:
“If you saw someone drowning in a pool, wouldn't you go in and help? There are so many people waiting for organs! All you have to do is sign up. Doctors vow to save lives. They will always help you. But if you sign to become an organ donor, you make yourself a huge hero. You can save so many lives! Live life, then give life!”
In this country, 18 people die each day waiting for an organ. A single donor can save the lives of eight people through organ donation, while a single tissue donor can save and heal more than 50 others through needed heart valves, corneas, skin, bone, and tendons that mend hearts, prevent or cure blindness, heal burns and save limbs.
Donate Life Connecticut is a volunteer driven 501(c)3 non-profit organization committed to increasing organ and tissue donation through education and outreach in Connecticut. To learn more or to register as an organ and tissue donor please call 203-494-1455 or visit www.DonateLifeCT.org.
LifeChoice Donor Services, Inc. is the federally designated, non-profit organ procurement organization (OPO) for six counties in Connecticut and three counties in Western Massachusetts with a combined population of 2.2 million people. The OPO serves twenty-three acute care hospitals for organ and tissue donation and two organ transplant hospitals, Hartford Hospital in Hartford, CT and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA.
LifeChoice Donor Services is a member in good standing of the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) and the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO). For more information about LifeChoice and to join the Donor Registry, please visit www.lifechoiceopo.org or call 1.800.874.5215.