Dr. Mansfield speaks about organ donation in front of the Tree of Life display

Nourished by gratitude, UTMB’s Tree of Life blossoms

Dr. Jerry Mansfield’s voice cracked as he talked about the death of his 15-year-old brother-in-law. It happened decades ago, but the emotion was fresh and the memory raw as Mansfield, new vice president and system chief nursing executive at the University of Texas Medical Branch, stood in front of a crowd gathered in the hallway of Jennie Sealy Hospital on the Galveston Campus.

It was a touching moment, one of many, at an event designed to observe National Donate Life Month in April and to honor and recognize past organ donors, living donors and organ transplant recipients.

“Patrick’s untimely death changed a family forever,” Mansfield said. “It also changed the lives of others. One of the things that brought some level of peace were Patrick’s gifts. I know it was bone, ligament and tendon. Other than that, I’m not sure, but they were still gifts.

“So, what’s my message? Thank you for those who have given gifts, like my wife’s brother,” Mansfield said. “Thank you for those who have committed to do the same in your own lives. It’s also a prayerful plea to those yet undecided. Please consider a gift of life for others.”

Later, the hall would fill with cheers and applause as, one by one, transplant recipients, all thriving now thanks to the transplant program at UTMB, stepped out of the crowd to claim their victories and announce their gratitude to the program and, most importantly, to the people who made the decision to donors their organs.

“I’m alive!’ they shouted, with their fists raised in triumph.

“I’m alive!”

The event was held near the Tree of Life display in Jennie Sealy. The Tree of Life was made possible by a grant to Transplant Services from the President’s Cabinet in 2011. It was recently relocated from John Sealy to Jennie Sealy Hospital and serves to memorialize the gift of organ donation.  The names of the most recent deceased and living kidney donors who have provided consent were added to the display prior to the ceremony.

Southwest Transplant Alliance

More than 3,400 lives have been saved over five decades at UTMB's Texas Transplant Center. 

Yet, according to the Southwest Transplant Alliance, the Dallas-based nonprofit organ procurement organization responsible for donor procurements at UTMB’s Galveston and League City campuses, only three in 1,000 individuals die in a manner compatible with organ donation, which makes every potential donor all the more valued.

What's more troubling is that there are more than 100,000 people in the United States, including 10,000 in Texas, currently needing a lifesaving organ transplant.

"A donation has the ability to save up to eight lives and improve the lives of 75 others," Southwest Transplant Alliance representative Gina Fullen said.

Southwest Transplant Alliance named UTMB Health a Top 25 Donor Hospital for 2022.

Working with Southwest Transplant Alliance for more than 20 years, Fullen's current role is in hospital development. Stressing the importance of organ donation has become a passion for her—and that often involves dispelling misunderstandings and even fear around the idea of organ donation.

"I definitely think there's a stigma, and anything we can do to turn that around and educate people that there's nothing nefarious going on is really important," she said.

Many people are hesitant to register as an organ donor because they fear they will see a doctor after being injured and not receive the best care possible, but that fear is unfounded, Fullen said.

"There are parameters set in place so that when someone shows up in the ER, the doctors don't have your driver's license," she said. "They don't know if a person is a potential donor or not. That is none of their business. They are there to save lives." 

Another obstacle transplant programs face is donors not letting their loved ones know their wishes. 

Becoming an organ donor starts with people providing their information on the donor registry. After that, it’s important for them to let their loved ones know their wishes.

Fullen said she has been in situations where someone died and had signed up to be a donor, but their next-of-kin had no idea. That left her with the job of getting the family to agree before moving on to the next step.

It often leads to additional heartbreak and uncomfortable legal situations. 

“What ends up happening is families revert to their own thoughts about organ donation, and oftentimes it's about what they're going through as opposed to what their loved one actually wanted," she said. "It's important to remember that an organ donation is a legally binding document. We hope that everyone who signs up to donate tells their loved ones.

“It's so much easier, a thousand times easier, when people have that conversation ahead of time,” Fullen said. “That way, that's one less thing the family has to worry about. They know what their loved one wanted. And so now, it's just up to us to work together to honor it.”

Jason Sheaffer, nursing director in UTMB’s Blocker Burn Unit, helped coordinate the Donate Life event and said the celebration reminded him why he does what he does. 

“As health caregivers, we're often caught up in the moment," he said. "Many times, we lose sight of a bigger picture. So, events like this help us to remember why we do all this work in the first place.

“We're helping to impact people's health in a way that's not always readily apparent at the moment,” he said.

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