Elizabeth Lane of Middletown did not think twice about giving her ailing father a kidney when she learned last year that she was the most suitable match in the family. "It was a no-brainer," Lane, a 43-year-old elementary school teacher, said, noting that New Jersey's waiting list for a kidney donation is between five and seven years. "We couldn't stand to see him wait if someone in the family matched."
The Rev. Lewis W. Kisenwether Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Matawan, said his wife, sister, three children and son-in-law were tested to determine whether they could make the donation. Kisenwether hoped his wife would have been a match.
"As a father, I didn't want to take a body part from one of my children," he said, but "it's a wonderful tale of our family and how much they love."
April is National Donate Life Month, and organ-sharing networks, hospitals that perform transplant surgeries and families that have renewed life because of a generous donation are making their pitch to remind everyone about the dire need for organ donors.
Nationally, there are nearly 107,000 people on a waiting list for an organ, eye or tissue donation. Last year, there were 28,464 transplant operations from about 14,631 donors, according a federal Web site called organdonor.gov.
Each organ and tissue donor saves or improves the lives of as many as 50 people, the site said.
The New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network, a nonprofit, federally designated organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs in the state, said more than 4,500 people in the Garden State await donations.
"One of the most important life-saving decisions you can make is to become a registered donor," Myra Burks-Davis, a spokeswoman for the network, said in a prepared statement. "Say "yes' to donation on your New Jersey driver license or state ID when you first apply for and each time you renew."
Barbara Hartmann, a 66-year-old retired floral designer from Howell, had her first kidney transplant in 1992. She had difficulty finding a match for a replacement when that kidney began to fail 4 1/2 years ago because of other health complications. She was placed on dialysis while she waited for a match.
Her boyfriend, John DePoto, wasn't a match in that respect, so he signed up for a nationwide kidney exchange program. They waited almost four years before a woman in Maine walked into a hospital and offered to donate her kidney. That set off a string of transplants. The Maine woman gave her kidney to Hartmann. DePoto gave his kidney to a woman from Virginia, and that woman's husband gave his kidney to a person in Massachusetts.
DePoto, a 63-year-old retired auto mechanic, said he couldn't stand to see Hartmann tethered to a machine that was draining the life out of her. Her pallor was gray, and he worried she didn't have much time left.
Their surgeries were done Dec. 19 at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, which is one of the top five transplant centers in the nation.
"I did it because I love her very, very much," he said. "Thank God that woman (the donor) came along."
Donors called heroes
Kisenwether was diagnosed with kidney failure in February 2008. He was told he would remain stable with medications for a year or so, then dialysis would be needed.
In November 2008, Kisenwether and his daughter attended a seminar about transplant operations at St. Barnabas. They decided to seek a transplant in an effort to avoid dialysis, which ties the patient to a blood-filtering machine three times a week for several hours a day.
The pastor and his daughter underwent surgery Aug. 5 at St. Barnabas, and both say they have recovered well. Lane said their kidneys doubled in size within a week so they can adequately perform the body's normal functions.
"It was a gift for me to be able to do it," she said.
Kisenwether, who now has more energy and regained a healthy color, said his daughter downplays her part in his recovery, but he called it a "tremendous sacrifice."
"I consider my daughter and all transplant donors as heroes," he said.