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The Last Selfless Gift

The gift of life does not always start at birth, and mothers are not the only ones who bestow it. The family of retired NEA educators and school staff can attest to this as many of this group have been granted life or have had it prolonged through organ donation.

Americans are living longer than ever. Men and women in the U.S., on average, are now living into their mid-70s and early 80s, respectively. While medical advances—including improved efficacy of organ transplantation—have increased life expectancy for those stricken with heart, kidney, lung, pancreas, intestine, and/or liver diseases, need continues to outpace the number of available donor organs.

Each day, 21 people die waiting for a transplant, and every 10 minutes another name is added to the national transplant waiting list.  Although an overwhelming number of Americans say they favor organ donation, only half have registered in a state donor registry.

Organ donation among the African American community has been particularly low. This, despite the fact that African Americans make up the largest group of people of color in need of organ transplantation. Driving home the point even further: African Americans account for more than 35 percent of the more than 120,000 names on the national list for kidney donation, but only represent about 21 percent of those receiving kidneys.

The cold, hard statistics are unsettling, but the personal stories behind the numbers are downright heartbreaking.

For about a decade, Debra Bates spent several hours at a time hooked up to a dialysis machine that flushed toxins from her body. It was work her kidneys would have done had they functioned properly. For part of that time, she continued to work as a middle school teacher—even grading papers while she was on dialysis. Bates was on a long waiting list of Americans desperate for a healthy kidney, and until 2015, the Alabama Education Retirees Association member waited anxiously for a call from the transplant center telling her that a match had been found. Then last November, on her 62nd birthday, Bates received the best present ever—a new kidney, signifying a welcome end to being tied to a machine, and a new lease on life. 

“I remember seeing that I got a call, but feeling too exhausted to answer the phone,” Bates says. “But when I answered, I was so excited. I knew that my life would change. Physically, I felt fine after the operation, but emotionally, it is a hard reality to know that you’re alive because someone else passed. The gratitude is overwhelming, but there are other emotions as well.”

Sue Kramer, a retired kindergarten teacher and elementary school guidance counselor, says that the gratitude isn’t exclusive to recipients. In 1986, Kramer had finished the school year and was celebrating with an escape to the beach; her only child, John, had just graduated high school. But a phone call cast a dark shadow over the brightness of that summer day and countless days to come. Her son had suffered fatal injuries while skateboarding with friends. In a matter of hours, she found herself in the sterile confines of a hospital corridor approving the retrieval of the organs of her 17-year-old son.

“We knew that it was something that needed to be done,” Kramer explains. “It helped us to know that our son could give someone else hope.”

After receiving a letter from the transplant center telling her a bit about the people who had received her son’s major organs, Kramer wrote each individual a letter telling them she prayed for their recovery and expressed gratitude to them for allowing John to enrich their lives. A man in his 30s whose wife was expecting a child received John’s heart. Another, named Joe, received the teen’s liver. She and Joe kept in touch for some 20 years. “It meant so much for me to know that Joe lived a long life because of the decision we made regarding John.”

Kramer was fortunate in one respect: her family, including John, had discussed organ donation once at the dinner table at around the time that her son was getting his driver’s license. “It wasn’t an intense conversation, but I do remember that he [John] was all for it,” said Kramer, the longest-serving Center for Organ Recovery volunteer in the Pittsburgh area.

Organ donation does seem to be more accepted by the younger generation than it is by older Americans, but education and awareness still are needed, and it’s Terry Murray’s goal to reach as many high school students as possible. She lost her husband when he fell from the roof of their two-story home in 1999. “At the hospital, I heard the words that everyone dreads, ‘I’m sorry, but there is nothing more we can do.’ I went from being a wife to a widow with two kids in a matter of hours,” says Murray, who didn’t hesitate to approve organ and tissue donation.

Although devastated by her loss, Murray was comforted by the knowledge that her husband’s corneas ultimately gave two individuals the gift of sight. Continuing her work as a Maryland Education Association-represented high school teacher helped Murray deal with the grieving process, as did her work with the state’s organ donation awareness organization. When she retired from being a high school art teacher in 2003, Murray knew how she would like to continue to use her teaching skills. Today, she is a volunteer for the Washington Regional Transplant Community, and speaks at Washington, D.C., area high schools to educate students about organ donation. 

“It was really inspiring to hear about organ and tissue donation, especially the personal stories. Ms. Murray’s talk made me much more inclined to become a donor,” says Sylvia Pinto, a Montgomery County high school junior who recently listened to one of Murray’s presentations. “It made me realize that you really are giving a gift of hope.”

Two senior citizens, in particular, would be quick to agree with Pinto. Tom Wilson, a retired NEA-represented math teacher, suffered a heart attack and was kept alive with an artificial heart. A month later, Wilson received a cadaver heart, but things didn’t go smoothly. His new heart worked fine, but the medication he was prescribed caused irreparable damage to his kidneys. For three years, Wilson had to endure dialysis for about 12 hours a day. When the call came that a match was found, Wilson, of the suburbs of Pittsburgh, couldn’t quite believe it.       “You just feel deeply grateful that you can enjoy life because of someone else’s selfless acts,” said Wilson, who with his donated heart and kidney is fully enjoying retirement in Pennsylvania, spending time with his wife, adult children, and four grandchildren.

Not everyone is as fortunate. Bridgette Reed, a retired teacher and a member of the Oregon Education Association Retirees, is fighting not to be among that group that die each day waiting for an organ. Reed battles a hereditary kidney disease. She has been on the transplant list since 2009—the same year she went on dialysis. Her deteriorating health put her high on the list, but a blood clot had a devastating impact on her health. Not only did she lose her leg, she lost her place on the transplant list. Not surprisingly, the loss of mobility led to significant weight gain, which led to a letter informing her that she was no longer on the organ wait list.

A former special education paraeducator, Reed retired in 2010. She is working hard to get back on the list, and continues to pursue prospects for a live donor. So far, her family members have not been a match and a live donor who was lined up reconsidered. Still, Reed remains optimistic about the fight. “I’m going to do everything I can to live a long life. Organ donation, whether through a live donor or from someone who has passed, is my hope,” she says.

Thousands of miles away, on the nation’s other coast, the four Rumaker boys are a close bunch—in age and spirit. So, when one of the brothers needed a kidney, “brotherly love” was on full display. All were willing to donate to their brother Bill, but Type 2 Diabetes plagued one brother and high blood pressure plagued the other. Patrick Rumaker, an associate editor for the New Jersey Education Association, who also works closely with the union’s retiree branch, turned out to be an ideal candidate. When the time came to donate, Patrick was wheeled into the operating room without any second thoughts. “I never had any doubt about being a donor,” says the marathon runner. “I knew that physically one kidney would be more than enough for proper kidney function; and mentally, I would do anything to help my brother.”

His Sunday morning coffees with Bill are a constant reminder to Patrick about how lucky he is to have all of his brothers in his life. “I don’t think about the transplant often, but I will say that I have never been prouder of anything more in my life.”

As someone, perhaps a teacher, once said, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but rather by the moments that take our breath away.” Giving and receiving a second chance of life can certainly do that. For more information about organ donation, contact to find a registry in your state. 

Misconceptions about Organ Donation

Myth: I’m too old to be a donor.

Truth: According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “While more than 99 million people in the U.S. are over 50, about 21 million of them believe they are too old to register as a donor. People of all ages, however, can be organ, eye, and tissue donors.”

Myth: Once medical professionals realize that I am a donor they won’t work as hard to save me.

Truth: Organ retrieval is not even considered until a person has died. It will not affect your care in any way.

Myth: My religion does not allow organ donation.

Truth: All major Eastern and Western religions view organ donation as a selfless act.

Myth: Organ donation could hinder my desire to have an open-casket funeral.

Truth: Organ retrieval is done with the utmost care and does not disfigure the body.

Myth: My own health would suffer if I chose to donate an organ.

Truth: The vast majority who donate while they are living go on to lead perfectly healthy lives. One kidney provides ample function; the liver regenerates, and lung capacity is not affected by the small piece that is removed.

Myth: Once it has been determined that a living donor is not a match for a loved one, there is nothing more for that prospective donor to consider.

Truth: People who are not a match for a loved one can consider donating as part of a paired exchange program. If the living donor is not a match for the person he or she originally had in mind, that person can swap donors with another recipient who also has a living donor who is not a match.

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