Last year they walked or ran for Team Haley. This year the “It’s a Life” team recognizes three Hunterdon Central High School students: long-ago recipient Haley Kopon, organ and tissue donor Kevin Gilbert, and a girl awaiting a kidney.
On Sunday the team boards a bus, sponsored by the school’s Key Club, and heads to Philadelphia for the Dash for Organ & Tissue Donor Awareness, a 5K or 10K run and 3K walk. Because the run falls during the school’s spring break, there are still spaces available, said club adviser and English teacher Melissa Mongi. “Join us. We’re doing this for those who have donated life, like Kevin, and those who have benefitted, like Haley, and are growing up strong and smart because of someone’s donation.”
Mongi had also taught Kevin, whose family decided to donate his organs and tissues on March 12 after the scholar-athlete crashed his car on the way to an early school team baseball practice.
Haley, the third of four children of Andrea and Thomas Kopon of Whitehouse Station, was diagnosed at 9 weeks of age with billary atresia, a rare congenital defect of bile ducts. The only symptom was a “more olive” skin tone than her brothers, said her mom, but was attributed by family members to their Mediterranean ancestry.
The potentially fatal disease was caught by Haley’s doctor at a “well baby” visit — she was really slightly jaundiced — and she immediately underwent an operation that was unsuccessful. By April 19, 1995, her enlarged liver had grown so much at “all my other organs were getting smushed inside of me,” Haley said this week. “I was 1 year, 1 month and 4 days old.”
Her mom said, “Her liver was so big that it had actually adhered to all of her other organs,” complicating the long surgery that day, made possible when a small boy drowned in a pool in Florida.
The Kopon family has written several letters of thanks to the boy’s family. And Haley, a junior, is planning a career as a nurse or occupational therapist, inspired by the people she’s encountered at Dupont (Del.) Children’s Hospital, where she still gets care.
Today she can do anything she wants, except play contact sports, which still leaves the dance team at school. “I only have to take medicine twice a day; it doesn’t run my life,” said Haley about the transplant.
Sunday’s walk benefits the nonprofit organ and tissue program covering Delaware and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “We walk to give back,” Haley said. “And this year it’s for Kevin,” whose organs “are saving lives.” And it’s for the teen nervously awaiting a kidney.
Mongi said, “It’s a time to think about the people we’ve lost, and gained, through donations.”
Students are given seats first on the bus, but adults may join them. The bus leaves Sunday at 7 a.m. from in front of the fieldhouse and returns after the race. Mongi said the $30 registration fee may be brought that day. For more information or to sign up, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the run and walk, visit donors1.org.
For more about organ donations efforts in Kevin Gilbert's name, click here.