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Gift of Life Celebration honors organ donors

In November 2015, Frankfort-native Brian Chenault went to the doctor for what appeared to be a bout of pneumonia.

After more than a year of struggling with the illness, Chenault received some much more distressing news: A viral infection had damaged his heart beyond repair. This past January, the 39-year-old was referred to UK HealthCare for a heart transplant.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “I prayed about it, and then somehow I was OK with it and in a good place mentally.”

UK heart transplant patient Brian Chenault speaks at the UK Gift of Life Celebration.

UK heart transplant patient Brian Chenault speaks at the UK Gift of Life Celebration.

On March 25, Chenault was successfully transplanted and says his life has completely turned around.

“I feel great,” he said. “I feel the way I did before anything ever happened to me.”

This past Saturday, Chenault showed his gratitude for his organ donor by speaking at the Gift of Life Celebration, an annual ceremony held by UK HealthCare and Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) to honor those who chose to give the gift of life.

The importance of organ donation

This year, more than 175 donor family members and friends attended the celebration, while the names of 26 donors were read aloud and unveiled on the Gift of Life wall, located inside Pavilion A adjacent to the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.

Each year, the wall is updated to honor both new donors and those who have donated in years past. Since the wall was first unveiled in 2012, more than 400 donors have been memorialized.

For patients struggling with organ failure, a transplant may be their only option for survival. Every year, an estimated 6,000 people die while waiting for an organ transplant. More than 117,000 Americans are currently waiting for donated organs, including more than 1,000 people in Kentucky.

Their names are on the United Network for Organ Sharing waiting list. The level of necessity, blood type, and size are among several criteria that determine who can receive a donated organ. One individual donor can provide organs and tissue for nearly 50 people in need.

Honoring those who donated

Knowing that their loved one was responsible for saving others offers some small solace for the donor families. Lisa and Tom Blevins lost their 22-year-old son, Keenan, in early 2016.

“We were on our way to the hospital, just trying to think of one good thing that could come of this,” Tom said. “When KODA approached us, we had our answer.”

Keenan ultimately saved six lives, and his name was added to the memorial this year.

“It’s just a great way to honor him,” Lisa said.

For Chenault, hearing that he’d been matched with a donor came with a bevy of mixed feelings.

“I was excited, nervous and a little scared all at the same time,” he said. “But it was also bittersweet because I knew that meant a family had lost a loved one.”

During the ceremony, the crowd listened in rapt silence as Chenault spoke, halting his words periodically to compose himself. He noted that organ donation doesn’t just make a difference in a single individual’s life – it also impacts everyone in that person’s circle.

“Not only did I need this heart, but my daughter, my wife, my family and my friends all needed this heart,” he said. “Thank you.”


Next steps:

Bruce Smith

Facing permanent brain damage, patient turns to UK for unlikely answer: a liver transplant

In 2011, Bruce Smith sat in his office preparing to make handouts for a meeting, like any other normal work day. But when he sat in front of his computer, he suddenly realized something frightening: He’d lost all understanding of how to use the machine. Bewildered at the sudden lapse in cognition, he said his coworkers thought he was joking around.

“I finally said, ‘I’m serious!'” Smith said. “‘There’s something going on here.'”

That moment was the first of many “lapses” to come. Smith was a diabetic, and his doctors initially thought his mental fog episodes were due to low blood sugar. When that was ruled out, they suspected he might be suffering from a series of mini-strokes.

“It was like I was taking a trip but never leaving the farm, you know?” said Smith, who is from Belfry, Ky. “I was awake but always taking naps.”

It wasn’t until Smith was referred to UK HealthCare that he got a diagnosis: hepatic encephalopathy, a term used to describe the mental fog that accompanies severe liver failure and a common occurrence in patients in need of a transplant. The liver’s job is to filter toxins from the body, and when it fails, the toxins accumulate in the bloodstream and wreak havoc elsewhere.

The team at UK determined that Smith’s liver was failing due to non-alcoholic cirrhosis. Although neither of his parents had the disease, one may have been a carrier and passed the gene down to Smith.

After getting a second opinion from the Cleveland Clinic confirming the diagnosis, Smith opted to remain at UK to be listed for a transplant. Liver transplant patients are assessed with a score known as the Model for End-stage Liver Disease, or MELD, which measures the amount of toxins in the blood and determines the patient’s position on the transplant waiting list. The higher the MELD score, the greater the severity of the disease and need for transplant.

Making the case for a transplant

Smith’s MELD score remained relatively stable for the next four years. However, his mental function continued to decline. As Smith’s symptoms worsened, his doctors at UK referred him to neurologists at the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute, where they diagnosed him with a much more serious condition.

“Bruce started out with hepatic encephalopathy, but then developed hepatocerebral degeneration, an extremely rare form of brain injury,” said Dr. Malay Shah, director of the liver transplant program at UK. “The exact cause of this disease is unknown, but liver transplant is the only cure.”

Many symptoms of hepatocerebral degeneration closely resemble those of Parkinson’s disease. In Smith’s case, he had trouble with speech, gait ataxia (uncoordinated movement and problems with balance) and ever-worsening dementia. Smith says he was essentially home-bound. He was unable to return to work, often couldn’t go to church and avoided going out for fear of experiencing an episode.

“I was asking, ‘Why me, Lord?'” he said. “‘What’s going on?'”

Although Smith’s liver toxicity remained stable – thus keeping his MELD score lower than necessary to receive a transplant – Shah said he knew he needed to push harder for Smith to be transplanted as soon as possible. He wrote a letter of appeal to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system, making the case for the severity of Smith’s situation.

“I appealed to UNOS to make Bruce’s MELD score higher than his lab values would suggest because hepatocerebral degeneration needs to be treated with a liver transplant,” Shah said. “Without an expeditious transplant, this disorder becomes permanent and irreversible. At that point, a transplant would be contraindicated because of the permanent neurologic damage from the disease.”

Shah’s appeal was successful, and on Sept. 27, 2015, Smith got a call from UK just as he was arriving home from church. He and his wife packed up and headed to Lexington to prep for surgery.

“I had all this happiness, excitement,” Smith said. “But also the fright of undergoing a major surgery.”

At 2 a.m. the next morning, Smith received his new liver – and a new lease on life. Since his transplant, things have improved drastically. He recovered fully from the surgery, and he underwent physical and occupational therapy to build back his strength and improve some of the basic skills he’d lost during his illness.

“I had to relearn how to write straight,” Smith said. “I had to use a ruler to sign paperwork.”

Becoming an organ donor advocate

As a surgeon who sees firsthand what a difference a transplant can make in the lives of his patients, Shah is passionate about raising awareness for organ donation. He notes that part of his job is making sure patients understand the gift they’ve been given.

“Our patients rely on the generosity of others to have a second chance in life,” Shah said. “And that’s exactly what I impart on my patients prior to transplant – that they and I literally owe it to the donor and their family to do the very best we can to take care of that generous gift.”

One way Smith is using his gift is by educating others on his personal experience. He is now a member and ambassador for Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA), the organization that runs the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry, educates the public on organ donation and honors those who have given the gift of life. He was recently featured on a billboard for KODA in Eastern Kentucky and says sharing his story is one thing he can do to honor his donor.

“What a selfless decision that person, or their family, made,” Smith said. “This is my way of giving back. Hopefully, it will get folks interested in becoming a donor and ultimately making a difference in someone else’s life.”

“Bruce is a wonderful patient and a great donor advocate for KODA,” Shah said. “It’s nice to see folks like him work with the organ bank to help educate others in their respective communities about how organ donation can help their neighbors.”

Although he is unable to work, Smith has returned to an active lifestyle that includes walking, performing and creating. He plays guitar as a hobby and gives lessons to those in his community. He has a small workshop behind his house, where he dabbles in woodworking and metalworking. None of these things would have been possible without the transplant he received a little less than two years ago.

But perhaps most importantly, he says, he lived to be able to hold his first grandchild, born just over a month ago, with a second grandchild coming next month.

“You push through death’s doors and go through what I’ve been through,” Smith said, describing his thoughts when he first held his grandchild, “and I just thank God that I’m alive to hold this little thing.”

Smith holding his newborn granddaughter -- his first.

Smith holding his newborn granddaughter.


Next steps:

living donor

What does it take to be a living organ donor?

For patients with kidney disease who want to live a life free of dialysis, kidney transplantation is the best option.

Donor kidneys come from two sources. The first source is from deceased donors, or individuals who have passed away but still have viable, healthy organs. Unfortunately, the need for deceased-donor kidneys is far greater than the availability, which means patients often have to wait years for a transplant.

Living donation is the second source of donor kidneys and is an excellent alternative to deceased donation. The wait time for transplant can be a matter of weeks rather than years, and kidneys from living donors tend to work better and last longer than kidneys from deceased donors. About one third of kidney transplants performed in the United States come from living donation, which has increasingly become the gold standard in kidney transplantation.

Learn more below about who can become a living donor and what the process entails.

Becoming a living donor

Sharing the “gift of life” is a selfless act that can have a profound impact on someone else. The UK Transplant Center is committed to guiding you through the donation process, which includes the following:

  • A thorough evaluation to determine if donation is a safe option for you.
  • A multidisciplinary medical team involved in evaluation, surgery and follow-up care.

Living donor qualifications

In order to be a compatible living donor, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Be in excellent overall health.
  • Have above average kidney function.
  • Have a willingness to help.

You do not have to be a blood relative of the recipient. A spouse, friend, coworker or anyone who is willing to help may be eligible to donate.

Evaluation

You will be asked to complete a medical questionnaire that will be reviewed by the Living Donor Committee. If approved to move forward, you will be scheduled for a thorough medical evaluation and screening process including lab work; testing; and social work, medical and surgical consultations. If the established criteria are met, your living donor transplant operation will be scheduled at a time convenient for you.

Surgery

You will be admitted to the hospital on the day of transplant and can usually go home two to three days after the procedure. The donor surgeon uses a laparoscopic technique with small incisions, shortening the recovery time in the hospital and generally allowing you to return to work within four to six weeks.

Cost

There is no cost to you or your insurance for medical care. You will be followed by the UK Transplant Center for two years after donation at no cost.


Next steps:

  • If you’re interested in being considered as a living donor, contact the UK Transplant Living Donor Program at 859-323-2467.
  • Learn more about the UK Transplant Center, which has performed more than 2,500 kidney transplants and has developed a reputation for excellence in kidney transplantation.