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Four Local Organ Donors Share Their Transformational Transplant Experiences

A shortage of available organs during the COVID-19 pandemic makes living donors even more crucial for those awaiting transplants.

Staff writers Jessica Lopez and Shellie Wass contributed to this article.

The need for organ donors is perhaps greater now than ever. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are over 106,000 men, women and children on the national transplant waiting list. Every nine minutes another person is added.

The impact of COVID-19 has taken an unparalleled toll on deceased organ donation. Studies indicate that organ donation from deceased donors decreased by 37% during the initial spring 2020 COVID-19 surge. This can be explained, primarily, by stay at home and social distancing orders, leading to fewer traumatic deaths, as well as consent for organ donation. This process, mediated by the Organ Procurement Organizations, is usually conducted via in-person family meetings.

Due to the shortage of available organs and the successful outcomes following organ transplants from living donors, the team at the Jefferson Transplant Institute encourages kidney and partial liver transplants between spouses, friends and even strangers. In fact, nearly one-quarter of live donor transplants now come from donors who are not blood relatives.

We sat down with four Philadelphia area residents—Benjamin Hart, Yevette Rossell, William McVerry, Michelle Calderon—to find out what the live organ donor experience has been like for them.

Bill posed with his brother John, both wearing "Thing 1" and "Thing 3" t-shirts

William (right) with his brother John (left).

When did you become a live donor and what brought you to make that decision?

Benjamin: It was June 11, 2020. My brother struggled with kidney disease for most of his life, having been diagnosed at five years old. It took a very long time for him to need a transplant, but I made the decision to be his donor five years before his surgery actually took place. The waiting was the hardest part, surprisingly, just waiting to see how long his kidneys would last. His numbers decreased in January/February 2020 and the transplant was finally scheduled for that March — when COVID hit. After all that waiting, we’d have to wait a little longer. His surgery was rescheduled for June. Thankfully he held out and never needed to go on dialysis.

Yevette: My journey to becoming an organ donor started after I watched a seminar Jefferson hosted via Zoom for my church (First Baptist Church of Crestmont) in Willow Grove, PA. A member of our church community needed a kidney. I didn’t know before that webinar that I only need one kidney and that some people are only born with one. I was 52 years old at the time and wasn’t having any more kids. I prayed and God responded, “What’s the worst that could happen? You aren’t a match.” And so I got tested and turns out I was a match. I felt like if I could help someone live longer, why wouldn’t I? My surgery was in June 2021 and my recovery went so smoothly. I was nervous for the actual transplant but honestly, the prep was the most difficult part of the whole thing! I’m planning on getting a tattoo around my scar—a lightning bolt and two stars.

William: I decided to become a live donor in early 2020, when my brother John sent out an SOS to our family and friends that he was in need of a kidney. John was recently diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome (an autoimmune disorder). His doctors informed him his kidneys were becoming very unhealthy and would require dialysis within a year’s time. Being his “fraternal” twin brother, my immune system would hopefully match up well with his system and lessen the risk of post-op complications. I’ve been asked, “why give away one of my kidneys?”  My response was: “kindness!” I was brought up in a wonderful family with parents that instilled good values and kindness was high on their list. It wasn’t totally necessary that I had to donate my kidney, because my brother could go on dialysis. I provided John and his family more time to enjoy life and why wouldn’t anyone want to help another human being live longer and happier?

Michelle: From the moment I found out that my mother needed a new liver I wanted to donate part of my liver, but she was very hesitant about letting any of her kids donate. She wanted to take her chances on the transplant list, but as the years went by it was almost six years of waiting! I practically begged her to let me do it for her before her body wouldn’t be able to take a live donor and she said yes!

Collage of Michelle on her bicycle and Ben playing tennis

Michelle on her motorcycle (left) and Benjamin playing tennis (right).

How has being a live donor changed your life?

Benjamin: My life is generally unchanged; I go long stretches without even thinking about it these days. I used the recovery as an opportunity to get back in shape, and today I’m probably more fit than before the surgery. I’m playing tennis regularly and keeping up with two kids at home! But beyond the physicality, being a living donor brought me a lot of satisfaction. It gave me a sense of having done something important, truly important, and my brother and I now share the experience of having gone through this together. It’s something we’ll never forget.

Yevette: The most amazing thing has happened to me since I donated. I GAINED ANOTHER SISTERFRIEND!!! Otherwise, nothing in my life has changed. I don’t feel any different. I just feel like I did what was right. Nothing special. I felt that I have gained more than what I could have ever lost. God gave us two kidneys for a reason so that we could share.

William: I honestly haven’t noticed too much difference. Astonishingly, we found out through a pre-surgery required DNA zygosity blood test, we are actually 99% identical twins; a wonderful surprise after 71 years of thinking we were fraternal twins. Obviously, when people find out you’re a live donor they react with appreciation and surprise. My response is “you should do it someday!” There’s a great feeling of joy and stewardship (in our case, a brother that helped another brother with the selfless help of others). I came to respect those on the frontline responsible for the initiation and completion process of organ transplantation. Having had a wonderful experience meeting the staff at Jefferson and watching everyone from the receptionists to the surgeons working for the betterment of others, gave me a shot of hope in these troubled times. I tell those who tell me, “the process of donating a kidney must have been life-changing.” My response? “Not nearly as life-changing as it is for the recipient.”

Michelle: Just seeing my mom getting healthier every day and becoming the woman that she was years ago before she got sick. It’s life-changing knowing that I have her for just a little longer.

Yevette sitting with some of her favorite family photo and books

Yevette sitting with some of her favorite books and family photos.

What is a piece of advice would give to someone considering becoming an organ donor?

Benjamin: Giving up something you don’t need on which someone else’s life depends is a no-brainer. If only all tradeoffs in life were so asymmetrically positive!

Yevette: My advice to anyone considering donating, is to pray first. Then look at what you will be gaining. I gained a SISTERFRIEND and it cost me nothing.

William: I would advise the person that the process is both educational and rewarding. Obviously, it’s a monumental decision, but with the help, care and direction of professionals (as I found with the entire Jefferson staff from receptionists to doctors) will help minimize the physical and emotional stress of the procedure. The recovery time was impressively fast, especially for a 71-year-old.  So if I can go through the process of donating a kidney at 71 you surely can and I would enthusiastically encourage you!

Michelle: DO IT DO IT DO IT!! Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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