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Event honors all who are involved in organ donation

Apr. 13, 2017, 8:33 AM

Matthew Stewart talks about his family’s experiences with organ donation and transplantation during last week’s Donate Life Ceremony. (photo by Joe Howell)

The white nylon flag unfurled every year during the annual Donate Life Flag-raising Ceremony at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) extols a significant message.

And it is different for each group it honors, said Lee Parmley, M.D., J.D., chief of staff for Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital, professor of Anesthesiology and physician chair of the Organ Donation Advisory Committee.

“The flag is a symbol of VUMC’s pride in the lifesaving work of donation and transplantation. For the hospital staff, the flag is a symbol of your compassion to your patients, your patient’s families and the lives hopefully changed through organ and tissue donation,” he told the group attending last week’s ceremony.

“To the donor families, the flag embodies the many ways your loved one continues to live on in this world. And to the recipients and those waiting on transplant lists, this flag is a symbol of hope.

“Raising the Donate Life flag only takes a moment in time, but it represents a lifetime for those waiting for a transplant; a legacy to those who have lost a loved one; and an everlasting gratitude to every person who makes this tremendous miracle possible,” Parmley said.

Matthew Stewart can attest to the importance of the Donate Life insignia. Prior to meeting his wife in college and learning of her kidney disease, he would not have given serious thought to becoming a donor.

In January, he gave his wife, Britney, a kidney. The pair had just celebrated their one-year anniversary the month before.

“I was among that group of people who did not know the importance of organ donation,” said Stewart. “And I don’t really think it’s a sense of selfishness — it’s really a lack of knowledge about the need and the struggle people go through while waiting for a lifesaving organ.

“Going through this experience with Britney really opened my eyes,” he said. “It’s funny, but when she found out she had kidney disease when we first started dating in college, she asked me if I still wanted to date her.

“I told her right then and there that I would give her my kidney if she needed it. Little did I know that I’d actually have to follow up on that pickup line,” he told the laughing crowd.

Matthew said he knew Britney was his lifelong match, but little did he know the transplant testing would further prove how much of a match.

Matthew and Britney Stewart at last week’s event. (photo by Joe Howell)

“It was crazy that not only were we the same blood type match, which is only 3.9 percent of the population, but we also matched tissues and antibodies.”

The youth pastor at Life Center Church in Cross Plains, Tennessee, said he enjoys sharing the couple’s story and takes most any opportunity to raise awareness about organ donation.

The act of giving comes at a higher rate in Tennessee, said Sunil Geevarghese, M.D., interim chief of Hepatobiliary Surgery and Liver Transplantation at VUMC. He said the wait for liver transplants here is shorter than waiting times in most others states in the country. The reason for this, he said, dates back to the War of 1812, when tens of thousands of Tennesseans volunteered to put their lives on the line for their country.

“The spirit of volunteerism lives on, especially in organ donation,” Geevarghese said. “Tennesseans embody what it means to be from the Volunteer State. That selfless decision is why we are celebrating today.”

There are 118,000 people in the United States waiting for live-saving organ transplants, 2,940 in Tennessee.

The act of donation, said Geeveraghese, is not possible without the dedication and hard work of the team of doctors, nurses and staff throughout the Medical Center and Tennessee Donor Services.

“We are grateful to you and for you,” he said. “Together, our teamwork saves lives.”

Hero medals were awarded to families of donors at the end of the celebration. And members of Tennessee Donor Services were on hand to assist audience members interested in becoming an organ donor.

To learn more about becoming a living kidney donor, go here.

For information on donor registration, visit https://donatelifetn.org/.

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