April 12, 2018

Event honors impact of organ, eye and tissue donation

Every 10 minutes someone is added to the national organ transplant wait list.

Steve and Heather Winfree speak at the Donate Life Flag-Raising Ceremony. Heather donated one of her kidneys to Steve last year. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Every 10 minutes someone is added to the national organ transplant wait list.

“Our collective mission in our country, in the Volunteer State, in the city of Nashville and as a Medical Center is to increase the number of registered organ and tissue donors,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and CEO of the Vanderbilt Health System. “Donation represents the very best that an individual can offer to another. Last year at Vanderbilt 72 individuals gave the remarkable gift of life to others through organ donation. Their selflessness resulted in 255 life-saving gifts.”

In addition, 114 people donated tissue that enhanced the lives of burn patients, restored sight to the blind and gave mobility to those suffering with bone and joint injuries.

Donors were honored for the difference they made in someone’s life during the annual Donate Life Vanderbilt Flag-Raising Ceremony on April 5 as part of national Donate Life month.

The event, now in its ninth year, honors donors and recipients whose lives have been impacted by organ, eye and tissue donation. It also raises awareness about the need for organ, tissue and eye donations and celebrates organ donor families, living donors and hospital staff who care for donors and transplant recipients.

“Donation is a difficult thing to go through no matter which side of the donation process you are on,” said Heather Winfree, who gave her husband, Steve, a kidney last September. “My husband spent one year on dialysis and I knew it was not the life I wanted for him. I started the process of getting tested to find out if I was a match.

“I knew it was the right thing for me to do,” Winfree said. “Even after surgery and I was in pain, I told the resident who was checking on me that it was the best thing I had ever done.”

Those thoughts were reaffirmed after seeing her husband, Steve, hours later for the first time after surgery. “Seeing him immediately feel better is something I will treasure forever,” said a tearful Heather.

Steve Winfree said this experience has not only given him a new lease on life, but a mission too.

“I know when I left dialysis for the very last time, I was very emotional,” he said. “It’s like I had survivor’s guilt. I felt like I was in the desert with all my dialysis friends and someone handed me a glass of water and said only I can drink it.

“Well, I am taking that drink of water and using it to give me the strength I need to find more water for everyone else,” said Winfree. “That’s my life’s mission.”

Seth Karp, MD, director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, said as a transplant surgeon he has witnessed the results of the lifesaving gifts.

“This is always an emotional day for me,” Karp said. “It really strikes me as I look out and see the families whose loved ones made this extraordinary sacrifice.

“As we celebrate the heroic act of organ donation, I also want to thank the teams of doctors, nurses and support staff,” said Karp. “You may not realize the great impact you have. We are thankful for your hard work and dedication. Together our teamwork saves lives.”

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

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