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Organ recipients, donors promote ‘Donate Life’ initiative

By Crystal Burns

For the fifth year, Gibson County Clerk Joyce Brown invited organ recipients and donors to encourage others to give life during the Donate Life Donor Awareness Reception at the Gibson Co. Courthouse on April 16.

Brown began participating in the promotion after watching her neighbor, Kenneth Bolton, and his family go through his kidney and liver transplant. Brown said that on May 1, Bolton would celebrate the eight-year anniversary of his transplant.

“I just wanted to encourage Americans to donate tissue and organs,” Brown said while holding up her driver’s license with the red heart icon that shows she is an organ donor. “I want to celebrate as many lives as we can.”

April is National Donate Life Month. There are currently 115,000 people on the national registry, and 2,900 are Tennesseans, said Wanda Stanfill, hospital services coordinator for Tennessee Donor Services. In 2017, organ donors saved 34,000 lives. In Tennessee, 908 people received organs, and 340 people were donors.

“We honor and we thank our donor families for the decision that was made during difficult times,” Stanfill said. “Their decision humbles us.”

Cindy Vaughn, of Jackson, is a Donate Life ambassador and a heart transplant recipient. Two weeks after giving birth to her third daughter, Vaughn had a heart attack. In 2016, her health deteriorated to the point that she spent most of the year in and out of the hospital. In July of that year, her heart function was 32. By September it had fallen to 20. On Christmas Eve, Vaughn went into defibrillation and was rushed to the hospital. She went into defib again on Christmas Day, and her status was pushed up to 1A as she waited in the transplant ICU at Baptist East Hospital in Memphis.

Vaughn said when the transplant nurse told her they had found a heart for her, she felt happy.

“There was no fear,” Vaughn said. “There was not one second of fear.”

She prayed for her donor’s family and later learned that he was 24 years old.

“Life springs from death,” Vaughn said, quoting something shared through the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Logan Harris, of Milan, was taking dialysis four hours a day for three days a week before he received a kidney transplant. His mother, Judy, spoke at the Donor Awareness Reception two years ago. Logan said dialysis was the worst part of the process because it’s extremely hard.

When he woke up from surgery after the transplant, the difference was almost immediate.

“Literally within 24 hours, I felt like a different person,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Steve Wisham, of Milan, learned he had hepatitis C and went through treatment at a VA hospital. Years later, his doctor called to inform him of a new treatment. Wisham said it worked, curing him of hep-C. Out of curiosity, his doctor took a CT scan of Wisham’s liver and found a cancerous mass.

Wisham spent six months on a transplant list with the VA before being bumped up and receiving a liver two weeks later. His donor was a woman from Nashville.

“There’s a whole line of people I can be grateful to for giving me a second chance of life,” Wisham said.

Anna Smith, formerly of Milan, was born with cystic fibrosis. Her childhood was marked by her ill health. On July 1, 2016, in need of a double lung transplant, Smith was placed on the list at Vanderbilt. She waited eight months but finally got the call.

“I had an eerie feeling,” Smith said. “I was worried.”

Nurses prepped her for surgery, but the doctor told her it was a “dry run.” Surgeons didn’t feel comfortable with the lungs.

On May 24, 2017, Smith received two “perfect, beautiful, healthy lungs.”

“I’ve had to fight to breathe my whole life,” Smith said. “I’m singing again after seven years. I’ve been fortunate and had a pretty easy recovery.”

Her donor was a 36-year-old woman.

Bill Utley, of Trenton, has a story similar to Wisham’s. He was diagnosed with hep-C, but treatments ridded him of the disease. Unfortunately, the cure also led to cirrhosis. He followed up with regular checkups to Vanderbilt, and on September 6, 2016, doctors found a suspicious spot. On Nov. 16, Utley underwent a procedure to kill the cancer, and on Dec. 7, he was added to the transplant list. He received his transplant on Aug. 24, 2017.

“I was blessed through it all,” Utley said. “When I came out of surgery and woke up, I was singing.”

Utley credited his faith in Jesus.

Donors’ experiences

Katie Hart was living in Mississippi when she found out a young man she worked with had in-stage renal failure that required him to spend 11 hours a day, three days a week in dialysis. Hart said she prayed, “What can I do to make him feel better?” The next morning, Hart said God clearly revealed his plan to her.

“I woke up and knew exactly what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Hart approached her colleague and said that although she was warned throughout the matching process that she might not be able to help him, she already knew the match would be successful.

“I knew in my heart that God would keep us,” she said.

They underwent surgery June 23, 2016 with no complications. What Hart learned later is how rare it is for a white person to be able to donate an organ to an African American.

Tresa Whitehead, of Jackson, was watching her 14-year-old daughter Sara Beth play basketball in a church league championship game 13 years ago. Tresa noticed that Sara Beth looked a little sluggish, and her daughter didn’t want to go to school the following Monday. A trip to the doctor revealed bronchitis, and Sara Beth began taking strong antibiotics, which seemed to help. At 3 one morning, Sara Beth woke up her father complaining of being cold. She told her parents she had a headache, and she later got sick to her stomach. At 6:30, Tresa found Sara Beth unconscious in the bathroom. She was transported to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to be treated for meningococcal meningitis. The neurosurgeon explained that Sara Beth was brain dead.

“That’s not what we expected to hear,” Tresa said. “On March 11, 2005, we sent her into the loving arms of her savior.”

Sara Beth had talked to her mom about being an organ donor, and she was able to give five of her organs to save six lives.

“As a mom who has lost a child, I can honestly say knowing Sara Beth is living in others gives me strength,” Tresa said.

Becoming an organ donor is simple. In Tennessee, you can register online or in person at your local DMV office. If you are 18 years old or older, you can use the online Donate Life Tennessee registration form to give your consent to become a tissue and organ donor in Tennessee. You can choose to donate all your organs and tissues or just specific organs and tissues. If you are 13-17 years old, you can register as an organ donor if you have a Tennessee ID card, driver’s license, or learner’s permit. However, your parents or legal guardians will make the final decision about your donation at the appropriate time. Register online at

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