April 11, 2008

Gift of Life event celebrates organ donation efforts

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Julie Damon

Gift of Life event celebrates organ donation efforts

People may not always call Julie Damon by name, but they've got her number — the number 1.

In 1991, Damon became Vanderbilt's first liver transplant recipient. Now, 17 years later, she is a regular in the transplant circles. And she could not be happier.

“It's fun for me,” said Damon, a retired foreign language teacher. “People come up to me and ask if I'm really No. 1. It gives them pleasure and comfort. I don't care that they don't know my name. It's the number that's important.

“I am just so thankful to be doing so well and I continue to do well,” said Damon. “I love everything I have been given through this transplant.”

Damon will be the featured speaker during the Fourth Annual Gift of Life Celebration in support of Organ and Tissue Donation, set for April 15. The event will be held on the Performance Stage in the Theater at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

“During my 17 years I have learned just how many people are involved in transplantation on so many different levels,” said Damon. “The longer I am involved with promoting organ donation, the more I appreciate all the people who work with organ and tissue transplantation.

“The celebration will be a great opportunity for me to let them know what they have done for me.”

A few months after returning from a summer in Spain those many years ago, Damon was admitted to Vanderbilt. Her diagnosis — a liver disorder called fulminating hepatic liver. She would need a transplant to save her life.

Damon grew critically ill and lapsed into a coma. With less than 24 hours to live, a liver became available.

Wright Pinson, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, remembers the intense situation well.

“We had organized ourselves to do our first liver transplant,” he recalled. “We were ready, but Julie's case presented some extraordinary challenges.

“As it turns out, things went very well. She is doing so well that I do not expect that she will require another transplant.”

Since that milestone, Vanderbilt has transplanted more than 800 livers. Liver transplantation is one of six programs offered at the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.

Others include Heart, Kidney/Pancreas, Lung, Stem Cell and Cornea.

There are also transplant-related services with dedicated staff and physicians, including outcomes and quality life research, psychiatry, return-to-work counseling, infectious disease, pharmacy, marketing, administration, contracting, financial counseling and social work.

“The Transplant Center has steadily grown and added programs since the inception of the kidney program in 1962,” said Pinson, associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs. “Many centers look to us as a model on how to organize a transplant center. “

Although Damon spends a lot of time promoting organ donation, her primary focus is her family. It is the main reason she retired from teaching — to concentrate on the things she loves doing.

For Damon every day is a cause for celebration, but none more so than her transplant day.

“Feb. 23 is far bigger than a birthday,” Damon said.

“It is far more special to us as a family. Ever since the transplant, things have been just 'wow!’ Life is beautiful. Everything I do I get more joy from. I get a real high out of life.”

Numbers speak to Transplant Center’s history, impact

As part of National Donate Life Month, Tennessee Donor Services will host a 12-hour information tent in the Medical Center North traffic circle on April 15 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There will be information for those wanting to learn more about organ and tissue donation as well as the opportunity to sign up as an organ donor.

In the United States, more than 98,000 people are on the national list for an organ transplant. Tennessee has 2,000 people waiting to receive life-saving transplants. Last year, 122 statewide died waiting for an organ.

Vanderbilt Transplant Center

by the numbers

• Kidney/Pancreas started in 1962; Performed 152 transplants in 2007, more than 3,500 total.

• Liver started in 1990; Performed 81 transplants in 2007, more than 800 total.

• Heart started in 1985; Performed 16 transplants in 2007, more than 500 total.

• Lung started in 1990; Performed 8 transplants in 2007, more than 250 total.

• Stem cell started in 1981; Perform average of 15 transplants per year, more than 2,500 total.