The waiting list for organ donations in the United States currently stands at more than 110,000. Friday morning at Toll Gate High School senior Alissa Giansanti tried to make that list a little shorter by holding a presentation in the school auditorium to promote organ donation.
“I know it might not mean that much to them now,” said Giansanti, whose uncle Jim Quinn was recently saved by organ donations. “It didn’t mean that much to me before either.”
Toll Gate sophomores gathered in the auditorium to hear speeches from Quinn, fellow transplant recipient Steve Bruno, and former Toll Gate physics teacher Ron Poirier. The presentation was put together as part of Giansanti’s Senior Exhibition Project.
“You are going to go in for your license soon, and you will be asked if you will be an organ donor,” said Quinn to the gathered students. “We ask that you say yes. If one person says yes because of this, then this whole day was worth it.”
Quinn had been a registered donor for years before his health problems developed.
“For me it was a joke before,” said Quinn. “I thought ‘someone wants my organs when I’m dead? Take them, I’m not using them’”
The issue took on more gravity for Quinn in July of 2010 when he visited his primary physician after a few days of feeling under the weather. Quinn walked in the door thinking that he had come down with a minor illness. After undergoing a series of tests, it became apparent that his situation was of a much more serious nature.
“The doctor looked right at me and said, ‘You’re three weeks away from the cemetery,” said Quinn. “I couldn’t believe what [the doctor] was telling me so I just tuned him out.”
After months of tests, doctors determined it would take a new liver and kidney for Quinn to survive. Rhode Island Hospital only deals with kidney transplants, so Quinn was placed on the donor list at Massachusetts’ Beth Israel Hospital.
“The only good thing about it is that the sicker you get, the farther up the list you go,” said Quinn.
Kidneys can survive for up to three days out of the body, making donations from all over the country possible. Other organs, like the liver and lungs, have shorter shelf lives and thus must be donated from within the recipient’s immediate area. As Quinn’s health deteriorated, he rapidly moved up the waiting list before being saved thanks to kidney and liver donations from a recently deceased 27-year-old man in June 2011.
“If it weren’t for organ donations, Alissa would be making this presentation without her uncle,” said Mary Anne Giansanti, Jim Quinn’s sister and Alissa’s mother.
Quinn walked into the hospital a 317-pound, 54-year-old man in deteriorating health. He walked out eight days later at under 200 pounds.
“What I was carrying was all fluid that my liver wasn’t breaking down,” said Quinn. “I hadn’t felt that good in years.”
Steve Bruno’s situation took longer to develop. First diagnosed with kidney disease at the age of 27, Bruno spent 13 years on medication fighting his condition. Six years ago, shortly after his first son was born, Bruno’s situation had deteriorated to the point that a transplant was unavoidable.
“It pulls the rug out from under you,” said Bruno. “Of all the times it could have happened, did it have to happen then?”
Bruno spent 14 months on a dialysis machine every Monday, Wednesday and Friday waiting and hoping for a kidney transplant before becoming part of the first three-way transplant in medical history.
“I don’t have to be hooked up to a machine anymore. I feel better than ever, added Bruno. “The Rhode Island Hospital demands that you stay for five days after surgery. They tell you not to lift anything, and say walking is the best way to exercise. I walked behind the lawn mower and six months later I was back at work.”
However, while both Quinn and Bruno are alive and happy today thanks to organ donations, they both struggled with the thought of death going hand in hand with life.
“I struggled with the word ‘thank you’ because it was really the only word that I had,” said Quinn. “I had to say something, and that’s when it dawned on me; this woman had to bury her 27-year-old son to save my fat [butt]. I tried to write a letter again and again and again. I kept deleting it. What do you say? She has a letter now. I hope it helps. All I know is that to me, her son isn’t dead; he lives on.”
Donors remain anonymous, and it is left up to them or their family if they choose to contact the organ recipients. Both Bruno and Quinn attempted to express their gratitude, but both admitted that at times they felt as if they were waiting for someone else to die.
“I struggled with that for 14 months while I was on dialysis,” said Bruno. “I dodged the issue by being a live-donor recipient.”
While both Quinn and Bruno struggled with the thought that it would take another person’s death to save them, Poirier sees the issue from a different perspective. Poirier’s wife, Cheryl, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in May of 2006. However, shortly after the loss of his wife, Poirier received a letter from the New England Organ Bank, saying that his wife’s organs had helped save four different lives.
“When you lose someone close to you it’s never a good thing,” said Poirier. “But for me this took some of the edge off.”
Cheryl Poirier’s lungs went to a 20-year-old woman with cystic fibrosis, and her heart, liver and kidneys helped save three others, all of whom sent Ron Poirier letters of thanks.
“It hurts to lose a loved one,” said Poirier, “but if you know that some good came out of it, it’s a little easier to take.”
All three speakers also took time to dismiss an organ donation myth – that doctors will sometimes let patients die in order to use their organs elsewhere.
“That’s just what that is; a myth,” said Bruno. “Doctors are going to give their patients 120 percent. They don’t want to be the doctor that lost a patient.”
Primary care teams and transplant teams are kept completely separate. Transplant teams are only ever called upon after the primary physicians have exhausted all options and the patient has been deemed to be beyond all help.
“Doctors usually don’t even know if you’re an organ donor,” added Quinn. “The only way they ever know is if you were brought in by rescue and they had to check for identification. Other than that, the doctors have no idea.”
The Senior Exhibition Project, currently part of the Rhode Island high school graduation requirements, is designed to “encourage students to demonstrate their talents and abilities while examining an issue or topic of deep personal interest that sustains student interest for the entire year.” Toll Gate health teacher Jim Kennedy hopes that the sophomores who gathered to see Giansanti’s presentation will see it as an example.
“You are all going to have to do senior projects soon,” said Kennedy to the assembled students. “I urge you to do something like Alissa’s, something meaningful.”
A reporter asked the students which of them would consider becoming organ donors after hearing this presentation. Every student raised his or her hand.