By Patricia J. Malin |Oneida County Courier
(Utica, Ilion, NY – Dec. 2010) John Weakley’s greatest gift came on Aug. 9, 1992. He received the heart of a 19-year-old during a life-saving operation through Upstate Transplant Services at Buffalo General Hospital.
In return for his second and even a third shot at a long life, the 72-year-old Ilion native continues to give back to the community. Some 19 years later, he freely offers his time and voice as an advocate for organ and tissue donation.
On New Year’s Day, Weakley will be given a chance to spread his appeal to a new venue. He is one of 30 individuals nominated to decorate and ride on the “Seize the Day” Donate Life parade float at the 122nd Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
Weakley and his wife, Carol, received an all-expense paid trip to Pasadena from the Albany Center for Donation and Transplant (CDT). They are planning to leave on Dec. 28 and will meet up with their son, Jay, and daughter-in-law Karin, who live in Santa Clara, Calif. The Weakleys have another son, Jeff, 48, who is married and has two children.
The parade will be broadcast live on NBC-TV on New Year’s Day.
“It’s very exciting,” said Weakley, who will be the oldest recipient on the float. “It’s a tremendous honor. Every organ procurement organization has an opportunity to send someone.”
CDT Albany is a member of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which houses the national computer system of patients waiting for transplants, and is also an accredited member of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO).
“I’ve seen the parade and float on TV, but I never dreamed I would be a rider,” he said. “I do programs to promote awareness; I don’t do it for a reward. I already received my reward, the gift of life. That’s what it’s all about.”
This year’s float is designed around the theme of flying a kite. The annual float is sponsored by Donate Life America, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Richmond, Va. Donate Life was founded by the transplant community in 1992 to educate the public about organ, eye and tissue donation, to be a nationwide clearinghouse and avoid duplication of effort.
Each year, individuals are selected for the Rose Bowl Parade and Donate Life Float. They represent millions of people touched by organ and tissue donation, including donor families, living donors, transplant recipients and transplant candidates. Another rider is Jeff Peterson of Franklinville, NY (western New York). He is sponsored by Upstate New York Transplant Services Inc. of Buffalo.
In July 2008, Peterson’s 5-year-old son, Erik, suffered a fatal head injury while playing outdoors in his backyard. Following the freak accident, Jeff and his wife, Pam, donated Erik’s organs. A very ill 8-year-old boy, A.J., received a new liver, intestine, and pancreas from Erik and is now living a normal life.
Weakley doesn’t act like a senior citizen. Since regaining his health, he is filled with enthusiasm for daily living. He is hearty and healthy enough to work fulltime.
“I do love my job,” said Weakley, who works as a “greeter” from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays at the St. Luke’s campus of Faxton-St. Luke’s Healthcare. Even though he has to rise before dawn to get ready for the commute to New Hartford, he thinks the effort is well worth it.
It’s a far cry from the demands of his former job as an ironworker for U.S. Steel Cyclone Fence in Syracuse. He suffered two heart attacks before the age of 50, and was forced to retire in 1988.
His first heart attack came in 1984 at age 45 and his second in 1988.
“It was probably hereditary because my father died of a massive heart attack when he was 60,” he said. “My heart attack in 1988 was not as bad as the one I had in 1984, but I still had a lot of damage. The doctors wanted to send me to Elmira (for an operation), but the doctors there thought heart surgery was too risky.”
He recalled that no one considered him a heart transplant candidate until “I started having congestive heart failure on a regular basis.” He was put on the national organ transplant waiting list in June 1992.
Weakley’s condition was so poor that he was admitted to the critical care unit. His weight fell from 185 pounds to 145 pounds. After anxious months of waiting, the “call” and the donation arrived on Aug. 9. He and his wife were flown to Buffalo by air ambulance.
After his successful heart transplant, he became a volunteer for Faxton-St. Luke’s. He was surprised when the hospital offered him a paying job as a greeter, but he happily snapped up the offer. He greets everyone who arrives at the main door of St. Luke’s Memorial Hospital.
In addition, he is a spokesman for CDT. “I’ve spoken to thousands of people,” he said. “I’ve gone to schools, colleges, and health fairs. I recently spoke at the Turning Stone Casino at an outreach program for the employees’ health fair.”
“Raising awareness of organ donation has always been my goal ever since I received my heart,” said Weakley. “In 1999, New York State established a donor registry. People could sign a donor card, but when the individual died, their family had to be notified about their intentions. Until then, most people didn’t think about it.”
Weakley noted that the acceptance of organ and tissue donation has greatly increased since 1992. “One hundred and ten thousand people are waiting for transplants, but 20 people a day die while waiting. It’s so important that people discuss this with their families.”
Even though some people might be hesitant to discuss organ donation or just don’t get around to signing up to be a donor, it doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.
“It’s a New York State law (enacted in 2006) that when a patient is brain dead, the hospital has to notify an organ procurement organization,” Weakley noted. Although one’s family is informed, their permission is not required to proceed with donation.
Weakley also pointed out that Gov. David Paterson signed legislation this past year allowing adults to register for organ donation online, and it’s a legal document.
“You’re never too old to donate,” Weakley emphasizes. As for himself, his transplanted heart cannot be used again because it needs to be sustained by anti-rejection drugs. Of course, he is on the list to donate whatever other organs or tissue can be salvaged, so he continues to keep himself in good shape.
The stories on each of the 30 heart transplant donors and recipients can be viewed at www.donatelife.org by clicking on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float.