At UPMC, organ donors lauded as Donate Life Month kicks off |
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Erik Cook, 35, of Beaver Falls poses with his wife, Michaela Cook, 30, who donated a kidney to her husband in 2013, and their daughter Bella Cook, at their home in Beaver Falls, Friday, April 22, 2016. When Cook was 7, he began losing his sight. By 14, he had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Today he is 35, legally blind, and the recipient of three transplant surgeries. In 2015, when Cook needed a pancreas, he passed up a donor in order to let the person behind him on the list go first.

Over the past 11 years, Bob Dolence has taken a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon, traveled around Europe, stood atop glaciers and zip-lined through jungles in Costa Rica.

He has celebrated wedding anniversaries, watched his children graduate and walked his daughter down the aisle.

None of it would have been possible without a double lung transplant procedure in 2006.

“I can only imagine the despair of the donor family,” Dolence said Friday at the UPMC Donate Life Flag Raising Ceremony, held to mark the beginning of National Donate Life Month.

“Hopefully, the burden of your loss will be lightened knowing that there are people like myself who have been able to experience more of life because of donors such as you and your family,” he said. “Our deep gratitude pales in comparison to the void created by your loss, (but) you have given other families much happiness and extended memories.”

Dolence addressed a crowd of about 75 people at UPMC Montefiore, most of whom have been affected by organ transplantation: surgeons, researchers and nurses, living donors, the family of deceased donors and donor recipients.

In Pennsylvania, there are 8,000 people awaiting organ transplantation surgery, 182,000 people nationwide, said Susan Stuart, CEO for the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, or CORE.

“The gift of life is possible because of the selfless choice made by an individual who simply said yes to donation or the family at the worst time of their lives who decided that they wanted their loved one to live on through donation,” Stuart said.

Jeremy St. Pierre’s family recently experienced that scenario.

In March 2016, his 16-year-old daughter, Isobel, died after an accident in the family’s Latrobe home. His daughter was brain dead with no hope for recovery. A nurse asked whether he and his family had considered organ donation.

They had not.

“This was not part of the plan,” St. Pierre said. “But being able to donate has made this situation bearable for me and my family. … I don’t really have to let her go entirely.”

Erik Cook lost his eyesight as a child, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a teen and suffered from kidney failure as an adult. His wife, Michaela, donated her kidney in 2010. Then his pancreas began to fail, and Cook received a transplant in 2013. But the new pancreas failed as well.

In 2014, when the transplant coordinator called to say they had another pancreas for him, Cook passed.

He told the hospital to let the person behind him on the waiting list take his place because “in this lifetime, you’re not always supposed to receive,” the Beaver Falls resident explained. “You’re supposed to be a blessing as well.”

The Tribune-Review wrote about Cook and his decision in April 2016.

Cook since has received a new pancreas and is doing well.

“Life means so much to me,” he said Friday. “I don’t take anything for granted. I thank God for everything.”

This year’s ceremony had special meaning at UPMC as it was the first without Dr. Thomas Starzl, known as the father of organ transplantation .

Starzl, who performed the first human kidney transplant in 1962 and the first successful human liver transplant in 1967, died March 4 at 90. As the head of UPMC’s transplant center, he set the standard for the life-saving surgery, officials said.

“Our team stands on the shoulders of giants who have taught us the way, the pioneering work of researchers and surgeons and in particular Dr. Thomas Starzl who has shaped our field,” Stuart said. “I had the honor and privilege to work with Dr. Starzl back in late ’80s. … He stood ready 24/7 with his team and slept very little, and he encouraged all of us to continue to fight for patients.”

Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected]

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