Donate life for Christmas

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

“Is your husband an organ donor?”

This question is asked thousands of times a day the the United States, and not only about husbands. Anyone admitted to a hospital — son, daughter, mom, dad — is required by law to be asked.

It's a routine question if your son is getting an X-ray. It is a terrifying one if your daughter is lying on a gurney in an ER.

Cheryl Koewler remembers very well when she was asked The Question.

Cheryl's husband, John, was a Vietnam vet where he earned three Purple Hearts and a slew of ribbons. She has a picture of him when he first returned home after earning his last Purple Heart. The right side of his face is bandaged in the photo, and Cheryl said that particular wound nicked a vertebrae and came close to killing him.

He worked at Copperweld in Piqua for years, eventually becoming shop steward. As with many vets, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and for many years turned to alcohol to cope. Cheryl's favorite photo of John was taken the day he became 10 years sober, showing a relaxed, happy man.

One day in March 2002, John was at work, helping perform a task he'd done a thousand times before, routine stuff that no one gave a second thought.

John bent at the waist as if to lift something and fell over. He never got back up. Aneurysm, the doctors said. He was conscious long enough to see Cheryl at the hospital, but that was it. Once he was flown to Dayton, he never woke up, kept alive only by modern technology, with no hope of recovery.

It was then that Cheryl was asked The Question.

“Is your husband an organ donor?”

Cheryl said that she and John had talked casually about organ donation over the years, and both agreed that it would be a fine thing to do. “Yes” was her answer.

Her one-word response set the following in motion: A 57-year-old burn victim received eight skin grafts; at least 20 people were able to have neck or spinal surgeries; three total hip replacements were completed; and a recipient of one of John's kidneys is alive and well and residing in western Ohio.

All made possible with a simple yes to a simple question.

Cheryl's first thought following her affirmative answer was for her cousin, Dan Stewart. Dan had been diagnosed with a chronic liver disease and needed a new liver. Might John be a match?

John's doctors thought so and alerted a transplant team in Toledo to get Stewart ready while the desperately needed organ was flown north. He was actually prepped and put under, but further testing at the Toledo hospital showed that the two were not a match, and the liver went to another recipient.

Stewart woke up expecting to have a new liver and and new lease on life, but found only crushing disappointment. By this time, he had been waiting on a new liver for 10 years. He finally got one in 2011 — 20 years after his initial diagnosis.

The wait was necessary because when it comes to receiving an organ transplant, only one macabre fact comes into play. The closer you are to death, the nearer you are to the top of the list. It's as simple as that. There is no pretty way to put it.

When an organ becomes available, the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS) is notified and the word is put out. Now, soul-wrenching decisions have to be made on the quick. Who is sicker and closer to death, the 14-year-old gamer in Cleveland, or the 38-year-old accountant in Chillicothe?

These dreadful decisions have to be made because demand is far outstripping supply. There are simply not enough recovered organs available and people are dying at a rate of 18 per day because of the shortfall. Another name is added to the organ recipient waiting list every 10 minutes.

According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), as of 8 p.m. Dec. 21, 2013, 121,327 people were waiting for a transplant of some kind, with more than 90 percent of those waiting needing kidneys (more than 99,000) or livers (more than 15,000).

The OPTN assigns regional administration duties throughout the country, and Life Connection of Ohio oversees the northwest and western Ohio region, including Shelby County. According to its website (, more than 2,000 Ohioans are waiting for kidneys as you read this.

Organ and tissue donation is 100 percent nondiscriminatory. Age, race, sex, even physical condition is not considered. Medicine has advanced to the point where just about anything can be recovered from just about anybody. Organs that can be recovered include the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestines. Tissues that can be donated are bone, cartilage, heart valves, veins, skin, fascia, soft tissue and corneas. The man, woman, or child who happens to be No. 6 on the waiting list for a kidney is not likely to care if a donor was tall or short, black or white, young or old, Republican or Democrat. Nor is the person who receives the corneas, or has their neck rebuilt, thanks to those who say yes to The Question.

It is a fact that many organ and tissue donations are born out of tragedy, most commonly car accidents, 1,123 people having died on Ohio roads in 2012 alone. Life Connection, the OPTN, and every other organization that has anything to do with donations all say the same thing: Discuss organ donation with your family and make sure your wishes are clear. Standing in a hall outside an ICU is no place to make that decision, especially for someone who can't make it for themselves.

Cheryl Koewler agrees wholeheartedly. She said it was a great relief to her not to have to make that decision on that terrible day in 2002.

“You should always talk about your wishes (with your loved ones),” Koewler said, ” so you know that they will be carried through. Don't wait until the last minute.”

The most common way to become an organ donor is say so on your driver's license. You can also click on the link above or visit the websites of any of the organizations mentioned for more information.