Organ, eye, and tissue donation has the power to create a ripple effect. Big or small, this ripple extends out from the donor and recipient to far beyond in every direction – their families, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. Donation can create an impact that we would never expect or could ever replicate. It is unique to each and every person that it touches.
A CONNECTION CLOSE TO HOME
You never know what can happen when someone says “yes” to that wonderful little red heart on their license.
Baseball Hall-of-Famer, Rod Carew wore the number 29 throughout his athletic career with the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels. After he suffered a heart attack in 2015, this number inspired a campaign with the American Heart Association, “Heart of 29,” to raise awareness for heart disease. After lengthy hospital stays and two major surgeries, Rod, in dire need, was placed on the heart transplant waiting list in November of 2016.
He never imagined that his donor would be a 29-year-old NFL (former Baltimore Raven) tight end Konrad Reuland, a man he had met fifteen years prior (when Konrad was a teen) at his son’s middle school basketball game. Konrad died on December 12, 2016 after an aneurysm in his brain burst.
Konrad, described with “an unstoppable energy,” had designated himself as a donor less than a year before—in April 2016 while renewing his license. His mother, Mary, said, “I told the doctors that whoever gets his heart better deserve it because it’s a good one. And a big one.” The Carew and Reuland families have become close and continue to honor Konrad’s legacy by raising awareness for organ donation.
But coincidental matches such as this are not limited to professional athletes. Jeannette Campion from North East, Maryland lost her son, Charles Jenkinson, 34, in a fatal motorcycle accident in May 2005. “He chose to have that wonderful heart on his license,” said Jeannette. “He gave many people a second chance at life.” A few months after his death, the family received a loving and compassionate letter from the husband of the woman who received Charles’ liver. Jeannette was immensely grateful for the letter, but didn’t feel ready to respond quite yet.
In August 2008, Jeannette attended her 40th high school reunion and reconnected with two old friends— Linda and Bobby Bopp. They had a great time talking about their school days, singing, dancing, and exchanged contact information to stay in touch. A few months later, as they prepared to attend the wedding of a friend’s daughter, Jeannette and Linda stumbled upon a topic they had in common: donation and transplantation. Linda had received a liver transplant in May 2005—the same time as Charles’ donation.
Jeannette asked if Linda’s husband, Bobby, had written a letter to the donor family, and Linda said, “yes.” The final moment of verification was when Jeannette showed her letter to Bobby at the wedding and he confirmed it was the letter he had written. “We cried and hugged and now are friends forever,” says Jeannette. Though the Bopps now live in North Carolina, the families stay in touch and always come together for The LLF’s Ceremony of Remembrance and Donate Life Family Fun Run to honor the donor, Charles, who made it all possible by giving the gift of life.
A NEW OUTLOOK, PERSONALITY, OR FOOD PREFERENCES?
When April Cove Ferguson received her kidney transplant, she was expecting a lot of things to change—but not necessarily her eating habits. “I never really cared for sweet stuff or chocolate,” she said. “But post-transplant, I crave it. I could eat my weight in Reese’s Cups!” She mentioned this new food preference to her living donor, The LLF’s Donor Services Coordinator Rachel Maynard, and found out that Rachel herself is a big Reese’s fan.
Hearing about these kinds of new preferences, changes in taste, etc., isn’t uncommon in the transplant world and doesn’t seem to follow any sort of order. We heard from one recipient who used to not eat meat, but post-transplant she can’t get enough. Another used to eat a lot of meat, but post-transplant became a vegan. And it’s not just limited to food. One recipient reported having a strong desire to watch March Madness after her transplant from a young male donor.
One popular concept to explain this phenomena is called “cellular memory,” which claims that memories can be stored outside the brain. While cellular memory is not scientifically validated, research continues by scientists and doctors. However, Dr. Silke Niederhaus, Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and 29-year kidney transplant recipient, believes there are many other scientific, medical reasons for personality changes, changes in taste, and our outlook on life after a transplant. “First, any end-stage organ failure can and often does—slowly—change our tastes. These changes become our new normal, so when transplant suddenly reverses these slow changes, we think we’re a ‘new’ person, because we are! Not because of the donor’s preferences or taste, but because their gift allowed us to reverse our sickness.”
“Organ failure is also associated with a poor outlook on life, so anxiety and depression are very common. A transplant may reverse these feelings because our bodies and minds are healthier when our organs function the way they should,” said Dr. Niederhaus. “Additionally, many of the transplant immune-suppressive drugs have side effects or personality changes.”
“While in some cases it would be comforting to think that our donor gave us something more than just an organ and a new chance at life, there is no scientific evidence to show that personality changes, outlook on life, or changes in food tastes come from the donor,” said Dr. Niederhaus. This holds true for liver recipient Patti Dean who shared, “I don’t believe in cellular memory. We all change over time. As I jokingly say, “I’ve received livers from two men and I still have no interest in NASCAR!” The experience of living with a chronic illness and then having a restored sense of hope is a much more likely cause of this phenomenon in some people, but it can certainly lead people to wonder.
AN UNEXPECTED CONNECTION
Sometimes the impact of donation reveals connections to others in ways that we never anticipated. The family of donor Matt Shetterly knew right away that their meeting with Matt’s heart and liver recipient was going to be special when the meeting coincidentally fell on what would have been Matt’s 26th birthday. Matt’s twin brothers attended the meeting with their Dad, Mike, and other family members. Walking into the meeting, the family was in awe to see Matt’s recipient, Erv Basdon, beaming with a smile and sitting in between his own twin daughters. The families came to realize that Matt’s brothers and Erv’s daughters’ birthdays were ten years and one day apart. The families hit it off right away and Erv allowed Matt’s family to listen to the strong heart that Matt had so generously donated, now beating in Erv’s chest. “It’s so amazing to know that even though our world was crushed, good came from it,” says Mike. “I look at Erv and I know that Matt’s heart and liver couldn’t have gone to a better recipient.”
Donation and transplantation may not be an experience that people wish to be connected with, but there is no denying that the connections of this incredible process are impactful on health, relationships, our personal outlook, and beyond.