April is National Donate Life month, raising awareness for organ and tissue donation. The benefit of donation to a recipient on the national waiting list is obvious. But the process can be just as healing to a donor family.
Larry and Vivian Lefferts sit in their living room in Normal paging through a scrap book dedicated to their late son, John. Larry turns to a picture of John and their daughter Eleanor.
“Last picture of the two of them. It’s just very, very cherished by everybody that we have this picture of brother and sister. A couple days before he passed,” says Larry.
John died in October of 2004 from a sudden aortic dissection, an uncommon condition caused by a tear in the inner-layer of his aorta.
“Totally unexpected. Just…blindsided I guess is the best term for it,” says Larry.
He was 22 years old.
“Once they confirmed that he passed, it was Larry’s idea, we immediately said, ‘Can he be a donor?’” Says Vivian. She says it’s what John would’ve wanted. Because of the aneurism, his organs couldn’t be donated, but he did become an eye, bone and tissue donor. John ended up helping 37 people across 14 different states.
“There’s 37 people stretching from Maine to Wyoming to California to Florida that are walking around today keeping John’s memory alive because they received a part of him,” says Larry. “And that to us is very touching.”
This January, the Lefferts were invited to the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, where Vivian got to ride the Donate Life float. She joined 31 other riders, all donors, recipients, and members of donor families from across the country.
“To get to hold his picture in the Rose Bowl Parade as you go down the five plus mile parade route. That was really awesome,” she says.
“Talk about a bucket list item, if you’re going to be in a parade, you might as well go to the granddaddy of them all,” laughs Larry.
Vivian says donation provides a sense of closure.
“For us as a donor family, it’s so comforting to know that parts of John live on,” says Vivian.
“It’s amazing what our donor families get from donation. Somehow, someway, they get a small spec of hope from what is otherwise a really tragic situation,” says Josh Muller from the Gift of Hope, a non-profit organ procurement organization managing organ and tissue donation in Illinois. He says it’s important to consider the impact of donation.
“Every single day, 18 Americans die while waiting for a life-saving transplant,” says Muller. “Unfortunately the demand for transplants greatly outpaces the supply.”
With over 5 million residents registered, Illinois has one of the highest rates of registered donors in the country. Muller says the waiting list is still too long.
“More than 5,000 Illinois residents are waiting and more than 117,000 Americans are waiting for transplants,” he says. “They’re desperately waiting. They’re waiting for that phone call that says you’re going to get a 2nd chance at life.”
Nick Toledo is powering through an intense Body Pump workout at Gold’s Gym in Bloomington. He’s knocking out quick sets of pushups, dips and squats.
“Exhilarating. If you’re not out of breath, you’re not doing it right!” says Toledo, mid-workout.
Fitness Instructor Amy Perschall says Toledo is one of her hardest working clients.
“The weight that he benches and lifts is very consistent with everyone else in the class,” she says. “I love having him here.”
It wasn’t that long ago when Toledo didn’t have the energy to walk up a flight of stairs. He caught a viral infection that settled in his heart causing severe cardiomypothy. With a weak and swollen heart, Toledo needed a transplant.
“I had major heart failure because of the cardiomyopathy,” he says. “My heart was beating at about 10% it’s normal capacity.”
He says he was put on the waiting list for a year.
“And sure enough, I got the call that January morning and I’ll never forget that,” he says.
Toledo was told the hospital received a heart and it was a perfect match.
“It was a young Latino male from the Chicago area,” he says. “Unfortunately this gentleman had an accident on New Years Eve, 2003. That’s how I ended up with the organ on January 3, 2004.”
After an eight hour-long procedure, Toledo woke up in the ICU with his new heart. Now, nine years later, he says he has all the energy he needs.
“In actuality, my heart is half my age,” he says. “I’m 58 right now and my heart is 26 years old right now.”
Next year on Toledo’s 10th anniversary of his heart transplant, he says he hopes to meet the donor family.
“To allow the mom or family to touch my chest and feel my heart beating that belonged to their loved one,” he says. “I’m sure it’ll bring tears to my eyes to think that this family was so generous to donate this young man’s organs.”
He hopes it’ll bring the kind of comfort Larry and Vivian Lefferts have found through their son’s donation.
“That’s like the last gift you can give your family is to let them know you want to be a donor, because that’s a gift you can give them to know that you go on,” says Vivian. “And it’s all about love, compassion and remembrance,” says Larry.
For John Lefferts, donation gave him a final chance to leave a lasting legacy. For Nick Toledo, donation gave him a second chance at life.
“I feel wonderful,” he says. “I feel wonderful. I tell myself you need to take advantage of this and you need to make the most of this opportunity that was given to you. And I do. Everyday.”