WINCHESTER — Michael McKiernan has some advice for family members and friends of patients awaiting organ transplants.
Show them care and concern. Let them know you are there for support. But treat them the same way you would other people you love. Don’t make their illness the constant topic of conversation.
Patients are on an emotional roller coaster while awaiting a life-saving, donated organ, not knowing if they ever will get one. McKiernan, who received a heart transplant in 2008, said their immediate goal basically is just to live one more day. They don’t need to consistently be reminded about their conditions.
McKiernan, a history teacher and cross-country coach at Handley High School, received his new heart nine years after learning that a virus was destroying his old one and being told he eventually would need a transplant.
During a remembrance service for organ donors Friday afternoon at Winchester Medical Center (WMC), he recalled his experiences and discussed the emotions transplant patients endure.
A person never knows when an organ will start failing. McKiernan recalled being at an out-of-town track meet in 1999 when, after taking a run around the track himself, “I didn’t feel like I was recovering” from the exercise and he later began experiencing pain.
Since his transplant, he said, he sustained two major infections, one of which required he undergo his fourth open-heart surgery since his heart problems were discovered. Overall, though, his recovery from the transplant has gone smoothly, he noted.
About 113,000 people in the United States — including about 2,500 in Virginia — await a donation of a heart, kidney, liver, lung or other organ. Meanwhile, about 20 people nationwide die each day because of “a tremendous shortage” of organs for transplantation, said Rick Fowler, director of hospital development and community affairs for LifeNet Health, a firm that coordinates organ donations and transplants for patients at WMC and other hospitals statewide.
Heart transplants comprised 3,440, or roughly 9.4 percent, of the 36,528 transplant surgeries performed in 2018, statistics from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration show.
“Getting a heart transplant is a delicate thing,” McKiernan said, in terms of being afforded the opportunity.
“You have to be really ill before they’ll give you one,” but not so sick that your other organs have become damaged, he said.
Factors involved in determining whether a donated heart is right for a potential recipient include the size of the heart, the size of the patient’s chest cavity and whether the donor’s and the patient’s blood types match, he continued.
Most organs come from people who volunteer to donate their body parts when they die. Among those people, however, only about 2 percent actually end up contributing organs, Fowler said.
“Relatively few people are in a condition to donate organs at the time of their deaths,” he said. For instance, elderly people’s organs deteriorate as they have aged.
People who died as a result of traffic accident injuries or other trauma are among those whose organs frequently are contributed for transplants.
“It always helps when people have designated themselves as donors ahead” of their deaths, said Fowler. People can do so when they obtain driver’s licenses through the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles or by going online to donatelifevirginia.org, he mentioned.
Organ donations are “the extraordinary gift of life given to others,” said Jeff Fletcher, a staff chaplain at WMC.
It’s wonderful, to say the least, when a patient receives a donated organ, the transplant goes well and the person is able to go on living, according to McKiernan.
Still, he said, “you feel a little bit of remorse that your gift of renewed life comes from someone else’s tragedy.”
Friday’s remembrance service at WMC coincided with National Donor Sabbath Weekend, an annual event coordinated by the Donate Life America organization and designed to educate people about organ donation.
Transplants are not performed at Winchester Medical Center. Rather, LifeNet Health helps arrange and coordinate transplants for local patients elsewhere, according to Carol Weare, the hospital’s public relations manager.
The hospital honored approximately 75 deceased patients who donated organs in recent years. In remembrance of them, family members of the patients and hospital staff members hung ornaments on a Tree of Life near the gift shop in the North Tower.
Three patients who donated organs during the past year — Trent Michael Corbin, Nicole Dudrow and D.J. White — were added to the list and recognized. Weare said WMC had other patients who recently donated organs, but it had not received permission to recognize them publicly.
About 40 people attended the service. McKiernan was the keynote speaker, but attendees were given time to discuss how organ donations have affected their lives.
One who spoke was Ann Huffman, a former Winchester resident now living in Slanesville, W.Va. Her 20-year-old daughter, Bailey, became an organ donor before her death in 2015 due to kidney failure. Several of her organs have since been transplanted, enabling other people to live.
Huffman recalled being touched by a conversation she had during a trip to Maryland with a couple whose teenage granddaughter had donated her organs before her death.
McKiernan shared a touching moment, too.
During his illness, he said, his wish was to live long enough to see his daughter, Hannah, get married. Earlier this year, he walked her down the aisle.