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CMU students and alumni give, receive and work in the world of organ donation

One child gets a new heart, one student saves lives and many advocates promote giving

Contact: Heather Smith


​​​​​​​​By Betsy Miner-Swartz, '86
Reprinted from Centralight winter 2014 ​

Chippewas for life

CMU gives and receives in the world of organ donation

Thousands of Central Michigan University students, faculty, staff and alumni have been touched by the modern-day medical miracle of organ, eye and tissue donation.

They have suffered tragedies and, in death, have given others new life. They also have received – they've been given a heart, lungs, a kidney or corneas. Those recipients get a new chance at life and, because of it, are able to see, experience, travel, love and make a difference of their own.

More people are in need of transplants than ever before. The national waiting list grows every week and today stands at an astounding 123,000 – enough people to fill Kelly/Shorts Stadium four times. In Michigan, nearly 3,500 people are waiting for a phone call with the news that their lives will be saved.

Here are some of the stories from CMU students and alumni who make up the world of donation and transplantation. They represent both the beauty of giving and the joy of receiving. And some are working in the field to help make those transplants possible.​​


April Lucas died a hero.

Just ask her dad. Then ask any of the four men who are alive today because the popular, 23-year-old graduate student donated her organs.

April, ’11, had just enrolled in CMU’s hospital administration program when she suffered a brain aneurysm while studying at her Mount Pleasant apartment in late 2011. She was flown to Beaumont Health System in Royal Oak, where it was later determined the young woman from Wixom was brain dead.

“She wasn’t on the registry, so when the choice came for organ donation, I left it up to April’s brother, Kevin,” her dad Harry Lucas of Macomb says. “I said, ‘You decide what she would want.’”

Kevin gave the nod. “From that moment on, it was about honoring April,” her dad says. “It’s made a world of difference for all of us – and the recipients and their friends and families. Her gifts are precious.”

As Harry Lucas puts it, his daughter delivered four miracles that day, and three years later, he’s met or at least talked with all of April’s four organ recipients: “Bob — who got a kidney and her pancreas — is in his 50s and lives in Illinois. He has grandkids, he's working again, and he and his wife are now traveling.”

“Jared is 30 – he was near death when he received April’s liver. He just graduated from nursing school.”

“And there’s Bill from New York. He has April’s lungs and will be able to see his daughter graduate from high school.”

“The other kidney went to Kassim, who lives in Grand Rapids, and he’s since had a baby.”

Kassim Scott was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2007. The illness put much of his life on hold. He was just 30 and dialysis was sustaining him.

“I was in and out of the hospital and barely able to work,” he says. “I was at my lowest moment when I got the call that there was a kidney.”

The transplant gave Scott his life back and made it possible for him to start a family: Little Korrie is 20 months old.

“I always wanted a daughter, and now I can run and play with her,” he says. “And I’m getting married next year. I never would have had any of this without my transplant.”

Scott has talked with April’s dad, but they’ve not yet met in person. When that day comes, he will say face to face what he’s already told Lucas by phone: “Thank you for her donation. It completely changed my life around.”

Harry Lucas and his wife, Peggy — April’s stepmom — now help promote donation in Michigan by talking publicly about their unimaginable tragedy and all the good that came after that.

“I’m telling the story of every donor through my daughter,” Harry says. “It’s an unconditional gift to a complete stranger. And now we know that her time on earth meant more than those 23 years.”


Alex Teska, ’10, considers herself fortunate.

She gets to hear the best stories – poignant ones about people who are blind or nearly blind, and then they can see again.

Their worlds are a dark blur; some see no color. Many lose their sight gradually because of genetics or disease, others suffer traumatic corneal burns or cuts. Many can’t see to read a book, recognize faces, drive or appreciate a stand of sugar maples in the fall.

And then their vision is restored because of the generous gifts of others.

That’s where Teska’s job as community relations liaison for the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Eye-Bank comes in. The Eye-Bank helps fulfill the wishes of people who want to donate their corneas.

Teska, 26 and originally from Trenton, hears the moving stories of transplant recipients who wake up from their surgeries and can already see better and more – and their vision only improves with time. They're overwhelmed with appreciation and gratitude as their worlds are transformed.

She hears from people like Casandra Perry, who, at 38, learned she was going blind.

“I couldn’t see the details of things like blades of grass,” Perry says. Her diagnosis: Fuch’s dystrophy, a painful, degenerative disease that distorts vision before robbing sight altogether.

Six years ago, the Northville woman received two transplants. Weeks after her surgeries, her world was bright, colorful and detailed again.

“The things I had been missing for years started to come into focus. Like the freckles on my son’s face,” Perry says.

The decisions of strangers saved her vision and helped her remain the sole provider for her daughter, Liz, and son, Jack. “The Michigan Eye-Bank gave me hope and they gave me sight.”

Teska, who earned her degree in political science, tells Perry’s story often. And there are so many more – like the grandmother who was able to see the faces of her grandchildren for the very first time, the artist who was able to return to her painting after years in the dark and the children who sometimes are able to see clearly for the first time and experience things they never imagined.

“I get to hear their stories and share them with others to increase awareness,” Teska says. “Everyone’s job at the eye bank is an important piece of the puzzle, but I feel lucky in that I get to see the results.

“These people become family because of the deep and wonderful connection through the gift of sight,” Teska says. “Hearing a recipient or donor family’s story is always a stark reminder of the amazing cause that I work for.”


Alum Ashley Brown and her colleagues at Gift of Life Michigan save lives.

The Grand Rapids woman, M.A. ’13, works with donation coordinators who are dispatched to hospitals all across the state to fulfill the wishes of terminal patients registered to be organ and tissue donors. They talk with families and – in cases involving patients who aren’t registered organ donors – ask mothers and fathers and spouses and siblings if their loved ones would want to help others. More often than not, the answer is yes.

“The number of people waiting for an organ transplant continues to rise, and I have the opportunity every day to help close the gap,” Brown says. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

When it’s clear a patient will become an organ donor, the team from Gift of Life works with hospital staff and transplant teams in surgery. Those hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers are then rushed to transplant centers across Michigan and the Midwest where desperately ill patients are already prepped for life-saving surgery.

Brown, 29, spent four years in hospitals with grieving families and transplant surgeons. Today, using the skills she learned in CMU’s master of science in administration program, she leads a team of six donation coordinators covering hospitals in Michigan’s southwest region.

“Through Gift of Life (based in Ann Arbor), we are not only changing the life of the person waiting to be transplanted, but each and every person they are connected to,” she says. “To be a part of that is truly amazing.”

Brown’s first organ donor case involved the family of a young man in a car accident.

“I had the opportunity to learn who he was as a person and all that he gave during his short time on Earth,” Brown says. “It was no surprise to me that his final gift to others was to be an organ and tissue donor.”

Brown was asked to speak at his funeral.

“What an honor it was to talk about the lives he saved and to represent the young man I felt I knew after spending so much time with his family,” Brown says. “Over the years, I’ve stayed in touch with them, and I still have his picture on my desk as a constant reminder of why we do what we do.”


Many Central students know personally what it means to give the ultimate gift of life — and to receive it.

Those students are channeling their passion into as much good as they can by helping add names to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

Jesicalyn Stoddard, 20, of Madison Heights, will be a leader this winter in something called the Gift of Life Campus Challenge, the largest college-based organ donor drive in the nation. Students on campuses across the state will compete Jan. 15 to Feb. 26 for new donor registrations by hosting sign-up tables and educating their fellow students.

“It’s important because once we pass, it’s the last thing we can do to help others,” Stoddard says.

She knows. Her father received a rare kidney and liver transplant in 2013 after his appendix burst, destroying those organs. v

“I never really knew how important donation could be until it happened to my family,” Stoddard says. “It’s the only reason he’s here. If he didn’t have a transplant, I wouldn’t have a dad.”

In its 11-year history, the Campus Challenge has added more than 35,000 people to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry. Central has added 1,528. The best year in Mount Pleasant was in 2005, when 463 people registered on campus. Stoddard has high hopes for the 2015 competition.

She will get some help from Washington Township sophomore Derek Lucassian of the Sigma Pi fraternity. His cousin, grad student April Lucas of Wixom, died of a brain aneurysm in 2011 and saved four lives.

“She’s not gone – she’s still living on,” says 19-year-old Lucassian. “I met some of her recipients and it was extremely emotional.”

His fraternity has taken on organ donation as one of its philanthropic projects, along with suicide awareness and the Adopt a Family program.

“I love getting people to sign up. It’s just so important.”

CMU consistently ranks in the top half of the competition with other schools statewide, says Jennifer Tislerics of Gift of Life Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“With more than 20,000 students on campus plus their family members and alumni, there is tremendous opportunity to inspire and motivate more people to register,” she says. “Not only would Chippewas help save lives and lend hope to those who are waiting, but CMU has real potential to bring home the statewide trophy in 2015.”

​​Register today to become an organ and tissue donor 

If you don't have a red heart emblem on your Michigan driver's license or ID, you aren't registered in this state. Doing so takes less than a minute: Go to giftoflifemichigan.org/go/cmu.​

If you don't live in Michigan, go to donatelife.net/register-now to join the registry in your state.

 


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