For many people, it’s easy to feel like organ, eye, and tissue donation is a far away, rare thing that will never impact them. Celebrities get transplants and maybe stay in the news for a few days or maybe there will be a big advancement (hello, penis transplant!) that gets some attention, but for the most part, donation and transplantation is something many people don’t come into contact with on a daily basis. Or so they think.
These three people from across Maryland are doing what they can to make sure that people realize their everyday connections to donation. By advocating, volunteering, and sharing their story at every opportunity in their communities, Janet, Krista, and John are making sure that donation isn’t just an afterthought for people – it’s an inspiring and empowering call to action. They may not be celebrities in Hollywood, but through their strong involvement in their neighborhoods and community organizations, they are showing in a big way how donation impacts people on a local level.
Janet Sommer – The Living Example
A simple Facebook post changed Janet Sommer’s life. In mid-September of 2017, she came across a post about a man in Western Maryland in need of a kidney transplant. He had been waiting for three years. Her initial reaction was to share the post, but Janet felt compelled to do more. She decided to talk to her family about potentially offering to become a living donor. “I didn’t even really know you could do this,” said Janet. She and her husband decided to take everything one step at a time. As a product of the foster care system with no solid medical background about her parents, Janet admits that she assumed she would be ruled out. “I learned a lot from that experience,” she said. “Don’t quit before you get started!”
After the initial testing, everything moved very quickly. Soon, it became clear that as long as Janet was willing, the transplant would happen. With the support of her husband and three children, Janet became a living kidney donor on December 27, 2017. The recipient, who Janet met two weeks before the transplant, is a volunteer firefighter in Western Maryland. Both Janet and the recipient are doing well.
Before and after her transplant, Janet has remained very involved in her community on the Eastern Shore. She is active in her church, serves as a troop shepherd for American Heritage Girls, and volunteers at Centreville Elementary. “My involvement in the community allows me to dispel myths and misconceptions about donation, especially living donation,” Janet said. “The American Heritage girls, at such a young age, are so supportive. We dedicated an entire meeting to talking about it – they were so interested and eager to learn about what they can do to help others.”
As much as Janet uses her voice to share her story, educate about donation, and dispel myths, perhaps her most powerful message is simply existing. “Even just standing there in front of people, showing how I have given this donation and am still healthy and thriving, it’s powerful. After the transplant, I found out about so many people in my community who have been impacted by kidney disease.” Janet is adamant about sharing her story and encouraging others to share theirs. “By sharing your reality, that’s going to be what breaks these misconceptions.”
Krista French – The Voice
If someone is talking about donation in Southern Maryland, Krista French is probably involved in the conversation. As both a donor and recipient family, Krista’s family knows the value and importance of donation from both sides.
On March 16, 1995, Krista’s baby passed away. Born at 7.5 months, the family decided to donate her body to research. Almost exactly 20 years later, on March 19, 2015, Krista’s husband, Jeff, received a heart transplant. After months of waiting while connected to an LVAD (a temporary pump used to help a failing heart pump blood throughout the body), his need became dire and he was moved up the list. The timing coincided not only with their baby’s donation twenty years prior, but also, to Jeff’s delight, with the start of March Madness, allowing him plenty of distraction during his recovery. His donor made it possible for him to see their daughter graduate, see the birth of their first grandchild, go on family vacations – the list goes on and on.
For the French family, while telling their donation story isn’t always easy, it’s always important. When her local newspaper published an irresponsible article about donation in 2015, Krista fiercely wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. “My family had a total cow about it!” said Krista. “It was incredible – it generated so many positive responses and was so cool to see how my family and kids participated in the conversation and became advocates for this cause.”
Since then, the family has only become more active. They connect with other families waiting on a transplant, speak at high schools, and volunteer at the MVA, always sharing their story along the way. Krista said, “At the MVA, I love when I’ve connected with someone at our table and then when they go up to the desk and are asked the question, ‘Do you want to be an organ donor?’ – They look back at me, smile, and say ‘Yes.’ Knowing that they heard our story and it impacted them – it means everything.”
Sharing their story at Krista’s daughter’s high school has been especially impactful. Since her daughter was a senior when her dad received the transplant, many of her friends and classmates knew what was going on. “The support from that community was amazing,” said Krista. “My daughter’s field hockey team dedicated a game to him – they used it as an opportunity for education and awareness.” Even now when telling her story at the school, students know her family and their story and have a direct connection to how donation has impacted someone at their school.
“My family never takes off our bracelets,” said Krista. “Whatever we can do to share our story, to share the facts, to share about our passion for this cause, we’ll do it.”
John Juppe – The Connector
John Juppe was deeply inspired to become an advocate for organ, eye, and tissue donation after the loss of Tyler, his nephew. Tyler’s legacy as a donor and his family’s experience with The LLF left a meaningful impression on John. “I just thought, what better way to honor Tyler’s legacy than to get involved in this? It just changed me in a way that made me realize how powerful and impactful donation really is and how relatively unrecognized it is in the community.”
John became a Donate Life Ambassador and quickly realized how representing and connecting donation to other community organizations could make a difference. “I’m hoping that I can help bring some extension of the Donate Life mission down into my area of Anne Arundel County.” John has quickly gone from volunteer to organizer, researching different opportunities for tables and outreach and connecting with other organizations such as the Cub Scouts, for which he is an Assistant Cub Master.
His involvement with his son’s school has also created additional potential opportunities to connect with the local schools, especially high schools, to provide education and inspiration to students who are about to get their driver’s licenses and make a decision about donation. “A lot of people just don’t understand,” said John. “There are so many myths and misconceptions out there, but to be able to set the record straight, it’s just so important and is a message I want to continue to be able to deliver.”
“There is really just so much opportunity – I love to be able to share the story of Tyler and how he has improved other people’s lives through that decision he made to be a donor,” said John. Inspired by his nephew’s gift, John has made it a personal mission to share his story whenever possible and create opportunities for the public to connect to our cause in his community.