Talking about death is never easy. And it’s overwhelming to consider donating a loved one’s organs when you’re praying they won’t pass despite the prognosis.
“Organ donating not should not be a taboo subject,” said Jen Eden, whose son Blake’s liver and kidneys were donated in 2015 following an auto accident. “It should be out in the forefront.”
Eden is among thousands gathered in San Diego for the Transplant Games, and they have a unified ask: Please discuss your willingness to be a donor with your family ahead of time.
Recipients of transplanted organs, living donors, families of donations from deceased loved and supporters are taking part in sports events and gratitude and healing activities at the San Diego Convention Center and local venues.
Here are some of their stories.
Wouldn’t Think Twice
When her three sons were growing up, organ donation was, of course, not something Eden thought about.
Blake had listed himself as a donor on his DMV license.
“He said yes — that’s all we needed to know,” said the mother from Orlando, Florida.
When approached at the hospital about organ donations, she hesitated at first, still hanging onto hope her 21-year-old son would survive.
“Once we realized the seriousness of his head injury, we knew that that was the right thing to do,” Eden said. “And we knew that just because he couldn’t go on doesn’t mean somebody else can’t.”
And the family figured that knowing what kind of a person Blake was, he wouldn’t have thought twice about donating his organs, she said, describing her son as someone who would drop anything to help a friend.
So Eden, her husband, Tim, and their sons Chris and Ashton carried the Donor Family banner in Saturday’s Transplant Games parade on Saturday morning.
“It’s all about honoring our son and being able to actually see the recipients be able to live their lives and be able to continue their journey,” she said of Blake, a “jester” who always wanted to make people laugh.
The Edens brought a quilt square with photos of Blake to add to the national quilt that promotes donations.
Saving Five Lives
Jen Jova, who lost her 17-year-old son, Andrew, after he suffered a brain injury in an auto accident, talked about how his organ donations saved lives.
He saved five lives and enhanced about 48 others through tissue donations, said the New Jersey mother.
Andrew suffered a head injury in a 2008 auto accident and lived only two days longer. Although he was able to speak to his parents the night of the accident, his brain began to swell and later the doctors detected no brain activity.
Andrew’s kidneys were given to two people, his liver to another. One man got both lungs and another got Andrew’s heart.
Jova said she and her husband, Paul, met Andrew’s heart recipient, who lived an additional 11 years during which he saw his grandchildren being born.
“And you know, he lived to this amazing life,” Jova said in a phone interview.
Andrew was one of the deceased donors honored Sunday morning with a paddle-out in La Jolla.
“That paddle-out for me was almost life-changing,” said Jova of Ocean Grove, New Jersey. “It was incredible, the people we talked to, and stories we heard, you know. So basically, we do anything we can to celebrate Andrew and to remember him.”
Team Andrew has raised $100,000 over time through fundraisers for the New Jersey sharing network for organ procurement.
Naturally, Jova said, she never imagined that she would have been on this journey with recipients and donors, but it has given her a sense of peace from understanding what the donations mean to survivors.
The games demonstrate to donor families that you can live a normal life thanks to the gift of organs, she said.
Donate? Why Not?
JoAnne Gipson noticed that a colleague at the University of Nevada in Reno wasn’t feeling good. The co-worker, Kiran Gandhi, was about to begin kidney dialysis and was looking for a living donor.
None of her family members were a match.
“She’s a nice person, so why not?” Gipson recalled at the UC San Diego swim venue.
They found out on Gandhi’s birthday that Gipson was a match.
“It was the best birthday present I could give her,” Gipson said. And 15 years later, both are doing well.
“As a living donor, I get accolades from recipients,” she said. “But to me, they’re the most amazing story.”
Gipson, 66, spoke Monday as she awaited her Tuesday track and field events: 100-meter dash, 200, 400, 1500 and shot put.
“People have an organ for 25 years,” she said. “Wow. I want my recipient to be like that, too. Just to see these people out here. They don’t care what they look like — what shape, size, ability. They’re here. Like, this is so cool.”
Donating to Brother, Son
Gipson’s Nevada teammate, June Monroe, also is a living donor. Monroe gave a kidney to her brother, Brian, in 2005.
Monroe’s father had donated one of his kidneys to her younger brother, whose kidney failed when he was 10.
“I think seeing my dad go through the process helped me a little bit to make me more comfortable to go ahead and make a decision … to donate to my brother,” said Monroe, an assistant principal at a Nevada elementary school.
Brian died in 2014 following medical complications, but Monroe since has become involved in the Nevada Donor Network.
She called the national Donate Life network “wonderful” and supportive of all.
“It’s the community and meeting so many wonderful people just supporting each other,” she said. “It’s kind of like a second family.”
Monroe won a gold medal in the 100-meter breast stroke Monday.
Tot Gets Chance at Life
Kevin Slifka, 50 of Pleasant Hills, Iowa, also answered the call of a family member.
His sister-in-law’s son was born with one kidney, which was failing in 2013.
“Cooper needed a chance at life,” Slifka said. “I was the third person to go through testing. And he was looking pretty slim” for an almost 2-year-old.
Slifka said he had numerous surgeries in his own life, “so it was really nothing for me to put myself out there to help him out. He was told that he wasn’t going to walk, he wasn’t going to crawl, eat on his own, go to public school.”
But since the transplant, the boy himself took part in the 2016 Transplant Games, running the 25-meter dash.
“He goes to public school, he eats on his own and he does everything — everything a normal kid does. Yeah, it’s incredible,” Slifka concluded.
The games continue at the San Diego Convention Center through Wednesday. For more information, visit TransplantGamesofAmerica.org.
Participants have competed in sports including basketball, tennis, swimming, track and field, badminton, bowling and pickleball.
Statistics from the National Donate Life Registry show that more than 110,000 people are on waiting lists for organs. An average of 17 people die each day waiting for a transplant. More than 85% of patients waiting are in need of a kidney.
In 2021, 41,354 transplants were performed. Since 1988, more than 800,000 organ donations have been made. Living donors can give a kidney, lung or portion of their liver.
To donate money or learn how to be an organ donor, see donatelife.net.
First of two parts. Next: Recipients share their stories.