Recognizing the True Heroes of Life Science on Donor Day

An organ donation is the greatest gift one can give -- a single donor can save as many as eight lives

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) estimates that an average of 22 people die every day because the organs they need to survive are not donated in time to save their lives. Five years ago, I was within days of becoming one of those death statistics. But the heroic actions of someone I will never know ensured that my two sons still have a father. While some may only turn their thoughts to organ donors every February 14th on National Donor Day, my gratitude manifests itself daily.

In 2010 I was diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron (thanks, Mom and Dad!), as well as with primary biliary cholangitis (PBC), a disease that results from the progressive destruction of the intrahepatic bile ducts. These diagnoses, along with the extra 50 pounds of weight I was carrying that was contributing to a fatty liver, spelled the imminent demise of my liver. The gastroenterologist who made the prognoses told me that most of his patients typically have just one of those types of problems. “You have all three,” he exclaimed. “You’re by far my most interesting patient!” Interesting? Hmm. That’s a trait you may want to have pointed out on your social media profiles or by a blind date, not words you want to hear spoken by a doctor—let alone one who is breaking the news that you’ll need an organ transplant to have any hope of living more than a few months. UNOS, the nonprofit organization that manages the United States’ organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, estimates that someone in need is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. Evidently, I’d drawn the short straw for that 10-minute time slot.

After a steady, gruesome decline during which I lost 76 pounds in just a couple of months (end-stage liver disease is a great way to shed unwanted weight if you don’t mind all the nausea, vomiting, skin discoloration, and bouts of unplanned unconsciousness), I was permanently hospitalized due to acute renal failure in December of 2011 after my kidneys gave up doing the work that my failing liver had quit doing some time earlier. Thankfully, three days before that Christmas, a donor who shared my same blood and body type tragically passed away and gave me the gift of life. My boys, then five and seven years old, got a new (well, approximately seven percent new, if you’re tallying total body mass) father for Christmas. I would say it was the best present they ever received, but they seemed far more excited about the new Wii video game system my MasterControl coworkers gave them to take their minds off our family’s health crisis. And when they’re teenagers they’ll probably wish the surgery hadn’t turned out so favorably. So, let’s just say it was the greatest gift I ever received.
Although my body has never rejected the new liver, five years later I’ve found myself back on the list of recipients needing another organ donor due to various complications that occurred following my transplant. (Yes, Thrombotic Storm is an actual serious health condition, not an awful science fiction movie.) I’m still a little weirded out that, mindbogglingly, a surgeon can remove an organ from one human and make it function in the body of another—it’s miraculous to the point that it makes my very existence seem like some sort of witchcraft. Yet since December 23, 2011, I’ve woken up every morning feeling grateful to have received a gift that has allowed me to continue living a fulfilling life with my family for yet another day. How many people can say they are alive today because a generous individual made a simple decision like checking a box when applying for a driver’s license or filling out a quick form on a website? I owe the greatest debt imaginable to a complete stranger I’ll never get to meet and thank in person.

With the day-to-day grind and mundanities of our jobs in life sciences industries, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the real reason for working in this field is to change lives for the better, and even save lives—even if it seems we’re only contributing in a very small way. But it is a challenge and an opportunity we all share on some level. Engineers and designers devote time each day to creating improved, more efficient life-saving medical devices. Scientists and researchers continually search for unique and fast-acting treatments and medications to fight life-threatening diseases. Biologists have even succeeded in growing human stem cells in pig embryos, potentially opening the door to the possibility of mixing pig and human cells to develop human organs for transplant. (Disregard the potential for blending human cells with pigs’ brains to develop super-smart pork products—but if that happens, let me be the first to say that I, for one, welcome our new porcine overlords.) Even those of us working for life-sciences adjacent software providers do what we do so that people in desperate need can get access to more life-changing products sooner than ever before possible.

Although you may be making these kinds of daily “donations” toward the betterment of humanity in your own way, it is unbelievably easy to donate an even more meaningful gift. If you are not already registered as an organ donor, U.S. residents can join the National Donate Life Registry via the Donate Life America website. Or you can learn more about organ donation in your area of the world at the International Registry in Organ Donation and Transplantation website.

A single organ and tissue donor can save as many as eight lives. If giving up an obsolete organ after you've passed away seems like too frightening a prospect, you can even help save a life by donating blood. To find out how and where you can donate blood today, simply go to the Red Cross website.

There is no greater—or more deeply symbolic—donation than the gift of yourself.

James Jardineis an organ donation recipient and a marketing communications specialist for MasterControl Inc. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Utah and is based in MasterControl’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.