By RHONDA SIMMONS | The Star Exponent
As folks across the nation wrap up their holiday celebrations with family and friends, Boston resident Carolyn Sisksaid she knows the true spirit of giving: The gift of life.
The 56-year-old widow believes there’s nothing better than getting a second chance to live.
After more than two years of battling liver disease, Sisk endured liver transplant surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville on June 6, 2008.
Now, the Loudoun County native, who is an organ donor, wants to encourage others to give back, too.
“Organ donation is so very important,” Sisk explained. “I’m not saying this because I’m a recipient, but because we can give the gift of life to someone who is in need. This is not only a blessing to the recipient, but also to their families, friends and the many other people that love them. It’s truly a gift that touches so many.”
A special gift
Sisk describes her story as a unique one.
“I was blessed with a donated liver when a co-worker/friend thought of me at a very difficult time in her life as her mother was passing away,” said Sisk, who also lost her husband, Jack, to lung cancer three years ago. “She told the doctors that she wanted her mother’s liver to be donated to me and praise the Lord, it was a perfect match.”
But there are so many others still waiting for vital organs.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing website — a non-profit agency that monitors the nation’s organ transplantsystem in real time — more than 110,300 people in the United States are waiting for life-saving organ transplants.
With the limited number of available organs, Sisk said, patients must first be “sick enough” to even be considered for the transplant list.
“And the more critical your medical need, the closer to the top of the list your name is moved, unfortunately however, way too many people die while they are waiting for a donated organ to become available,” said Sisk, who retired from the Virginia Department of Transportation after 27 years.
The purpose of the liver is to process carbohydrates, fats and proteins and store vitamins. It is also responsible for releasing bile to help digest fats, and breaks down toxic substances such as drugs and alcohol.
Sisk learned about her need for a liver in February 2006.
Although, Sisk is a transplant recipient, she’s also able to donate her own healthy organs in the future.
“I’ve discussed this with my doctors and learned that there are organs I can donate, too,” she said. “I can never repay this friend or her family for their act of courage, but I can share this blessing I received with others.”
For instance, Sisk will be able to donate her own eyes, a kidney, heart, lungs and pancreas.
Dr. Kenneth Brayman, division chief of transplant surgery at U.Va., agreed, saying it’s absolutely possible for a transplant recipient to become an organ donor.
But it’s not likely for liver recipients, such as Sisk, to be able to donate the same organ received during surgery.
“It’s already scarred in and it would be technically difficult,” said Brayman, who did not perform Sisk’s operation, but provided his expert opinion about organ transplantation in general.
The donor’s family chose not to speak at this time.
Dr. Brayman, a founding member of the International Pancreas and Islet Transplant Association, and widely published author in several clinical journals, is also a proponent of organ donation.
“Organ donation is one of the greatest acts of human kindness that exists. If we have more donors in the United States, we wouldn’t have these long wait times,” said Brayman. “The sad thing about long wait times is people are dying while waiting for organs. Every day there are people who die because they couldn’t get a transplant.”
According to the Donate Life America website, an average of 18 people die every day from the lack of available organs.
Organ transplant experts say 90 percent of Americans support donations, but only 30 percent know the essential steps to become a donor.
Notify your family
Brayman also suggests donors discuss their donation wishes with their family members.
“Your family is pretty much the ones who will help make that decision (if) you have an accident,” Brayman said via Tuesday’s telephone interview.
In most states, organ donation can be published on a driver’s license.
Brayman suggests people do both: Include your donor wishes on your ID cards and inform your family members about your decision.
“You don’t want your family to think something differently than something you’ve signed up for. You want them to be on the same page,” he added.
“By signing up to be an organ donor and sharing my wishes with my family, my family will not have to make that decision when I pass away,” she said. “I’ve given my family the peace of knowing my wishes and being able to comply with them.”
Meet Carolyn Sisk
Family: husband Jack Sisk, deceased, no children
Education: Rappahannock High School
Employment: Retired from the Virginia Department of Transportation after 27 years
Health: Received a liver transplant on June 6, 2008
Mission: To encourage others to sign-up for organ donation
» U.S. resident on waiting list, 110,300
» Every 10 minutes another person is added to the national organ transplant list
» An average of 18 people die each day from the lack of available organs
» Ninety percent of Americans support organ donation, but 30 percent know the proper procedures it takes to become a donor
Sources: unos.org and donatelife.net