April 24, 2014

Event honors lives of those impacted by organ donation

When Renee Coats retrieved a packet from her mailbox she was not sure how to feel.

Renee Coats talks about her son’s gift of organ donation at last Thursday’s Donate Life Flag Raising Ceremony. (photo by Anne Rayner)

When Renee Coats retrieved a packet from her mailbox she was not sure how to feel.

She knew the parcel contained a letter from one of the five people her son, Brandon Gray, helped in 2011. As a matter of fact, he saved their lives — Brandon was one of 71 patients in 2011 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center whose gift of organ donation following their deaths resulted in 268 transplanted organs.

“I didn’t know whether to cry or be happy,” said Coats. “I slowly opened the letter and read it and I just cried and cried and cried. Then I thought how amazing all of this was and I became happy. I was so happy that this young man who sent the letter was able to be helped.”

Soon after, when she received another piece of mail with the same return address from Tennessee Donor Services, she smiled.

“I really wanted all the recipients of his organs to have a better life than what they had before their transplants. I wanted them to have more time to experience things. I am happy they are doing better and feeling better. I am one of their biggest cheerleaders.”

Coats shared her story during the annual Donate Life Flag Raising Ceremony at Vanderbilt, which honors donors and recipients whose lives have been impacted by organ, eye and tissue donation.

In 2013, 74 individuals made the gift of organ donation, resulting in 264 life-saving transplants. Vanderbilt currently ranks third-highest in the nation for annual organ donations and has a 91 percent consent rate for organ donation — the national goal is 75 percent.

Coats, a retired nurse and registered donor, had not discussed the subject with her children.

“This is the kind of thing you never want to happen,” she said. “But this is why we all need to encourage each other to talk about organ donation ahead of time. Find out what people’s wishes are.

Christy and Keith Hagewood attended the Donate Life Flag Raising Ceremony with their son, Andrew, 2, who received a heart transplant at Vanderbilt when he was 8 months old. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“After the doctors told me the situation with him, that there was no hope for him, I knew what I had to do,” said Coats. “I knew that we needed to donate his organs so that someone else could live and a part of him could go on.

“As the time was drawing near for Brandon and it was becoming harder for me to say goodbye, the nurse shared with me that he had documented he wanted to be a donor. That was empowering. As hard as it was in those last moments, it helped me to know that I was doing the right thing, that he wanted the same thing.”

Coats stressed the importance of having the conversation with friends and family about organ donation because making decisions during a time of turmoil is more difficult.

During the flag raising ceremony, C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D., deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System, took the opportunity to call attention to the national shortage of organ and tissue donors in the United States.

“Today is a call to action for individuals not yet registered to do so, because organ donation is the right thing to do,” he said. “Very simply, it saves lives. Organ donation represents the very best that human beings have to offer one another — compassion, generosity and hope.”

Pinson also thanked the Vanderbilt medical teams responsible for caring for both organ donors and recipients.

There are 122,000 people in the United States waiting for transplantations, with 2,600 in Tennessee. Every 10 minutes another person is added to the transplant waiting list. Nationwide, 18 people die every day waiting for donated organs.

One recipient, Andrew Hagewood, was 8 months old when he received his heart at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in 2012. The now 2-year-old and his parents, Christy and Keith Hagewood, attended their first flag raising ceremony.

“We feel so humbled,” said a teary Christy Hagewood. “We are humbled to know that there are others who are facing great sadness when we are feeling relief. We understand, especially after hearing this speaker, that families are also grateful that they are able to help someone else (like Andrew).”

Visit donatelifetn.org for more information on how to become a donor.