Donate Life

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April is Donate Life Month. For some, it’s just another imprint on the calendar. But for many people in Chesapeake, it means so much more. It represents the bittersweet loss of a loved one linked to a new lease on life for those in need.

Cindy Harris lost her 18-year-old son in September of 2006. Paul died one week after a serious single-car accident on Waters Road put him in a coma.

“He loved life probably more than anyone I know,” said Harris. “His love for life and his love for people are what led him to be an organ donor.”

Harris still remembers taking Paul to get his driver’s license. An option on the application asks the individual if they want to be an organ donor in the event of their death.

“We talked about organ donation and becoming an organ donor and what it meant,” said Harris.

Paul checked the box when he got his driver’s license. He wanted to help people.

She didn’t give it much thought until after his accident, when she and other family members were in the hospital. He was brain dead. They were devastated.

“We decided to allow him to go with dignity and peace,” said Harris.

The family met with some representatives of LifeNet Health at the hospital and arranged for Paul to be an organ donor. In their darkest moment, Paul’s generosity and love for life were a gift to someone else.

A man in central Virginia received his liver. Two women in Virginia received his kidneys. A man and a woman received his corneas. Three people received his heart valves. In all, the organs and tissue Paul donated helped 69 people in 16 states.

For Harris, April as Donate Life Month means a chance for people to learn more about donating their organs, their eyes and their tissue.

“The need is so great to have organ and tissue donors,” said Harris. “Just the thought of providing hope and a longer life for someone in need moves us to do something to help and provide that hope.”

It is the gift of a heart from a young man who died in Pennsylvania that changed Steve Assid’s life and gave him hope. Assid suffered a heart attack in 1985. In 1986, he was diagnosed to need a heart transplant. In 1987, very ill and near death, he received his first heart transplant.

Assid, who lives in the Greenbrier section of Chesapeake, had to wait three-and-a-half months for his first heart transplant. His body rejected the organ, prompting a second transplant in 1990 after he was on the waiting list for eight months. A young man in a car accident in North Carolina was the second donor.

“It’s given me so many years, almost 26 years of life,” said Assid. “I have seen my kids grow up and go to high school and college. I have five grandkids.”

His heart is again failing and he has been on the waiting list now for more than six years. Meanwhile, he goes to the gym four times a week, is active at his church and enjoys spending time with his family. He often thinks of the parents who lost their teenage sons and allowed him to experience things he once thought were impossible.

“I am alive today because of the grace of God and the grace of those people in North Carolina and Pennsylvania,” said Assid. “I have had time with my kids, my grandkids, my wife. Words will never express how thankful I am.”

There are several ways to become an organ donor. One is by checking the Organ Donor box when receiving or renewing a driver’s license. Another is by registering with In Virginia, a family member is asked to decide when their deceased loved one is not registered as a donor

According to LifeNet Health, there were 3,093 Virginians on the organ waiting list at the end of February. There were 2,562 people on the waiting list for kidney, 230 liver, 75 pancreas, 44 kidney/pancreas, 157 heart and 30 lung donations. There were 633 organ donations in Virginia last year.

Many people in Chesapeake have benefited from eye donation as well. In 2012, there were 38 donors from Chesapeake and 55 individuals who had their sight restored. The Lions Medical Eye Bank of Southeastern Virginia provided tissue for 476 eye transplants in the U.S. and 243 nationally. The Eye Bank always fills the need locally first, then assists within the state, then nationally, then internationally.

According to the Lions Medical Eye Bank of Southeastern Virginia, the top three conditions that prompt the need for a cornea transplant are keraticonus, Fuch’s Dystrophy and post-cataract edema. Keraticonus is a hereditary condition that causes the cornea to develop a cone shape, blurred vision and often eventually causes blindness.

Barbara Gamble, who lives in the Edmunds Corner section of Chesapeake, is quite familiar with the effects of the condition. She suspected one of her sons, Mitchell Gamble, Jr., had a vision problem when he was about 15.

“He always looked real close when he was writing and reading,” said Barbara Gamble. “He said he had trouble with the blackboard.”

He and his sister, Towanda Roman, were both diagnosed with keraticonus as teenagers. Wearing corrective lenses slowed the process, but they each had cornea transplants in both eyes to stop the debilitating disease from eventually claiming their vision and their independence. They are adults now and both are registered as organ donors.

“It was simple for me,” said Mitchell Gamble, Jr. “If they can help someone and use them after I’m dead and gone, then that’s great. I won’t need them. It helped me out. I didn’t need to give it much thought, really. The reason I was able to have the transplant myself is because someone before me made that decision, but I think I had made that decision long before that. I’ve always checked that box on my license.”

Becoming an eye donor is an easier choice for some than others. One common misconception is that the entire eye is removed from the body — a thought that makes some people shudder.

Eye donors are actually cornea donors. This clear window is located above the iris and resembles a contact lens. The cornea doesn’t affect eye color; that comes from the iris. It is the cornea transplant that gives the gift of sight to those who need it. With its small size and no blood coursing through the lens, there is no need to match blood type. As a result, there is no waiting list for eye transplant recipients in Virginia.

“The donor can be of any age and any race. Poor eyesight doesn’t matter,” said Leslie Schrembs, director of Hospital and Professional Relations for the Lions Medical Eye Bank of Southeastern Virginia.

As Donate Life Month approaches, many organizations are hoping to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation.

“That I’m a recipient of an organ, it puts a different perspective on things,” said Mitchell Gamble. “It’s not like I’m trying to save the world or nothing like that, but if I can do my part, I will.”

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3 Responses to Donate Life

  1. Nancy Hurst Reply

    March 19, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Thanks you soooooo very much for your support of organ, eye and tissue donation. MJ did a wonderful job pulling all of the information together and sharing all of the stories. As a donor daughter and best friend, I can not thank you enough for helping to educate the community about donation.

  2. Thank You MJ for your wonderful article to celebrate the donors of your community and allow the recipients to express their gratitude. Your and your reader’s support of Donation is the ultimate gift. Thank YOU!!!

  3. Janie Barnett Reply

    April 10, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I am so greatful my son Brandon Wade Barnett chose to give back life, Brandon was in a dirt biking accident in Chesapeake in January of 2010… He was such a great kid he LOVED life as Paul did. I have spoke at many events to help support organ and tissue donation, in Brandon’s memory. As many teenagers when you take them to DMV for that oh so scary moment when they get their permits Brandon forgot to check the box for organ donation, so the DMV lady sent him back to check the box he then ask me what does this mean, I then explained the value of this program to Brandon and went back to reading the drivers Ed book from DMV. It was not until Brandon’s passing that I ever knew that he checked that little box that could save so many people… And in my eyes make Brandon a HERO… He could have chosen to not check that box but he did and he made a great choice that day not knowing it would be used so quick after that day… I got the phone call from life net and they told me because he was under age I had to make that choice I then told them NO this was his choice and I would like to respect his wishes. In loving Memory of Brandon Wade Barnett #907 forever in our hearts

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