Like the phoenix rises from the ashes, life can arise from tragedy through the gift of organ donations. Just ask Greg Waldrop and Michael Patterson.
Patterson and his doctors were trying to identify what was wrong.
“I am retired military, and in the military, I didn’t have any kidney issues at all,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got out of the military and moved here to Shreveport. I was going to the VA. I was having a lot of sickness, especially with gout, and now I know why. The uric acid was always high because my kidneys weren’t functioning to get the toxins out.”
Patterson registered on the transplant list in Shreveport and at the Baylor Transplant Center in Texas. He was told it could take up to five years to match his blood type. But when he sought a second opinion, he was encouraged by the response.
“The doctor was all spiritual about how God was in this,” he said. “I was over the moon. I came back to my church that Sunday, and I was like, ‘I feel so confident. I believe I am going to get the kidney.’”
Waldrop was a diabetic on dialysis. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, and the chemotherapy treatments and steroids doctors prescribed further damaged his kidneys and his eyesight.
“Actually, it probably would have happened 15 or 18 years down the road, but that combination with diabetes just sped things up,” he said. “I can still see good enough in my left eye to go to work and to drive. It started on a gradual decline. I started dialysis in June of 2014 after my kidneys finally failed. I started the dialysis and did that for about three years. That was three days a week after work, and I was at the clinic for five hours. It took everything I had to get up and go to work. A couple of months before I got off dialysis, my doctor talked to me about not working because I just wasn’t recovering fast enough. Dialysis just takes it out of you, leaves you with nothing.”
Waldrop didn’t quit work. He was off work April 24, 2017, sitting on his porch.
“I had really just gotten to the end of what I could do,” he said. “I prayed, ‘God, I am at the end of my strength. I just can’t do this anymore. So, whatever is going to happen… If you want to take me home, I am fine with that. If you want to heal me, that’s great.’ I felt so strongly about it that I sent my wife a text. I said, ‘Look, if something happens I’m OK.’ I told her what I had prayed. I just wanted her to know I was OK if something happened.
Waldrop and Patterson are members of Broadmoor Baptist Church. Waldrop attends a Sunday school class that Patterson teaches. Both are involved in the choir with Caleb Robison. Both men knew they needed a miracle. And that night when Waldrop sat on his porch and prayed, their miracles arose from deep tragedy. That was the night Robison’s sister, Cassie Edwards, committed suicide.
“Everything started with Cassie’s suicide,” Robison said. “At that point is where God started putting his hand in and unfolding different pieces of the puzzle so we could see how it would all go together.”
Robison thought his family’s loss could bless both men. Edwards was an organ donor, and Robison requested that her kidneys be donated to Waldrop and Patterson.
“At that point, we had a lot of decisions to make,” Robison said. “When we kind of started processing the idea that Cassie was gone, one thing we asked as a family is, ‘What would Cassie want to do with her organs?’ Cassie was a giver… to a fault. That was my sister. It was appropriate that we recognized that and said anything that we can give through organ donation we want to give. We really didn’t know how that process worked. The next day, my boss at the church called me and said ‘Caleb, I know you are going through a lot. But rest assured that through Cassie being an organ donor and the testimony that will come from that, guys like Mike and Greg, who have been waiting on organs, will at least see some hope. As we talked I said, ‘Do you think we can request to see if they are a match?’”
But all Robison’s family could do was ask. That’s when Gina Carpenter from the Louisiana Organ Procurement Association (LOPA) stepped into the story. She worked to see if the request could become a reality.
LOPA oversees organ donations in Louisiana. Renee Sugg, donation service coordinator with LOPA, explained the intricate process. On the donor side, just declaring a desire to be an organ donor is not a guarantee, Sugg said. Some are unfit as organ donors for medical reasons. And potential organ donors have to die in a hospital on a ventilator to ensure those organs have not lost oxygen.
“If you think about every patient who dies on a daily basis, and the amount from that who can be donors, you’re looking at less than two percent,” Sugg said. “To be an organ donor is a rare opportunity. It’s not something every person who passes away can do.”
Even when those criteria are met, finding a suitable recipient is a meticulous process. Recipients must be on the waiting list to receive an organ. Among those on the list, priority is given based on factors including severity of need and geography. Other factors include a blood-matching process that goes beyond just blood type. “With every blood type you have the A, A-positive, and A-negative, for example,” Sugg said. “But there are other antigens that go into it. It’s a long line of things. So, everything has to play out perfectly. A lot of family members don’t match each other.”
Even with all of those factors in play, Waldrop and Patterson were perfect matches for Edwards’s kidneys. “That was God, totally,” Sugg said. “God said, ‘OK, I know this is going to happen, and I am going to place you right where I want you to be. And I am going to place these right in your lap.’”
Robison said the significance of it all did not hit him until the night Waldrop and Patterson received Edwards’s kidneys. “I didn’t know the depth of it all until the guys were in surgery and word spread around the hospital,” he said. “Doctors were saying they had never heard of it. Still, statistically, they haven’t found another case where this has happened.”
The transplants were done at the John C. McDonald Regional Transplant Center at Willis-Knighton, the only transplant location in Louisiana north of New Orleans. Members of Robison’s family and Broadmoor Baptist gathered in the hospital that night to sing and pray. “It’s been supernatural, the way it happened,” Waldrop said. “(Caleb) being here, and us all being together in Mike’s class, it’s just God doing only what he can do.”
Patterson recalls the sequence of events this way: “When God is at work, it doesn’t happen the way men think it would. I was so excited. I was like, ‘God, is this the way it’s supposed to happen?’”
Patterson said he met Robison’s mother, Jan, for the first time that night in the hospital. “Caleb’s mom came and sat next to me on that bed and said, ‘Mike, you all go to the same church. My son loves you. I love you, and I would like for you to have one of my daughter’s kidneys.’ I just lost it.”
According to statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there were 187 organ donors in Louisiana in 2017. They gave the gift of life to more than 600 organ recipients. Louisiana also had 388 tissue donors who helped thousands of people last year. More than 2.5 million are registered as organ donors, according to UNOS reports.
Sheron Raymond, community educator for LOPA, said those numbers are increasing as more people learn about the process of organ donation. “We talk to many at drivers’ education,” Raymond said. “We start at the high school level. We realize they are being affected by the transplant patient as well. It affects the whole family’s routine. When you do a transplant, it affects the entire family.”
Sugg said not all organ donors are registered. She said in those cases, it comes down to the family making a decision on behalf of their loved one. “If they are registered, we let the family know when a loved one has decided to become a donor, and we kind of walk them through the process of what donation would look like, to honor their loved one’s decision,” she said. “If they are not registered, we speak about the unique opportunity a loved one has to leave a living legacy for their family. Again, we walk them through the complete process. We really try to bring the patient into the room to see what that patient would have decided.”
Jackie Blakes is the chief nursing officer at Ocshner LSU Health Academic Health Center. She said education helps dispel a lot of myths about the process.
“There are a lot of misconceptions,” Blakes said. “In the past, when I dealt with families, a lot of families thought that when their loved one donates organs, the body is going to be disfigured, and they aren’t going to recognize them. Once they understand that, a lot of them say ‘OK’. We dispel all the myths. We ask what their fears are. We speak to that. We are very honest about where the incisions are going to be.”
That can be important, Blakes said, if the family wants to bury its loved one wearing an open collar or neckline. She said LOPA and the medical team work hand in hand with the family throughout the process. “Our utmost concern is care for the family,” she said. “It is truly a gift that they are giving. We want them to know we are very happy to honor their loved one’s decision or make the decision for their loved one.”
Sugg said stories like Cassie Edwards’s story also spread awareness about organ donation. She said there was a similar story out of Monroe involving a set of infant twins. One twin did not survive. But the baby’s heart was donated to a child in Alabama. That story was featured on ESPN’s College Gameday show prior to the LSU-Alabama football game. Contact with a donor family is a case-by-case decision by each family, but Sugg said those families remain close.
“They go on vacations together,” Sugg said. “The baby who got the heart, his favorite person is the donor’s grandfather.”
Robison’s family remains close to Waldrop and Patterson as well. Patterson refers to Robison as his “brother from another mother who shares the same DNA.” For Waldrop, the family connections go even further back. Cassie Edwards was Waldrop’s son’s first girlfriend. Now, those ties are stronger.
“For the first three months, it was hard for me to see Caleb and Jenny (Caleb’s wife) at church,” Waldrop said. “I wanted to go up and hug them every time I saw them. Now I still do. I didn’t know how he felt. Yes, he was so happy that we got those organs, but I didn’t want seeing me to be a reminder of what he had to go through with his sister. I tell Caleb every now and then that I love them like family. And he says we are family.”
Waldrop also stays in touch with Robison’s mother, Jan, who lives in Alexandria. “She’s been great,” he said. “She calls Mike and me her boys.”
Patterson also relishes his new connections. “God has given me what I call my God family through Greg and Beth, through Caleb and his family. I am able to help Jan more. I just love them so much,” he said. “It’s helped us more as far as trusting. Trusting each other and trusting God to handle any situation. He’s a big God for everybody. It’s about helping people now.”
Robison and his family also have reached out to the recipients of Edwards’s lungs and heart. The young man who received Edwards’s lungs was suffering from cystic fibrosis before the transplant. Robison said his mother has made an effort to connect with the donor, but he has not been receptive. The heart recipient was a different story.
“We met her at a flag-raising ceremony at LOPA here in Shreveport,” Robison said. “They asked us to speak. We met Caitlyn (the heart recipient) and got to listen to my sister’s heart. I can’t really describe it in words. There’s no way to describe the feeling that you get knowing that in a moment of weakness my sister made a bad decision, but God would find a way to make it relevant through the importance of organ donation. “
Robison, Waldrop and Patterson all said they feel compelled to share their story to encourage and inspire others and to raise awareness about organ donation.
“It’s about helping people now,” Patterson said. “Especially in the Afro-American community, where a lot of people don’t believe in organ donation. LOPA has a sticker that says, ‘Why take your organs to heaven when heaven knows we need them down here?’ I tell them how easy it is to help people have a second chance in life.”
Patterson offers a word of encouragement for patients and families still waiting for organ donations. “Do not give up,” he said. “Be strong and don’t give up, because miracles do happen. God is still in the miracle working business.”
Waldrop agreed. “I’ve been able to speak at a few places, and that’s part of my testimony now,” he said. “The mistakes I made in my past, and even through all that, God still helped through the cancer and the kidney failure. I tell people to just keep going. Have faith in God. Just don’t get down. It could be worse.”
Robison, who is an organ donor, said the family did not know at the time that his sister was an organ donor. But they knew Edwards had a giving spirit and would have wanted her organs to be donated. He does encourage others to have that conversation with their loved ones.
“That’s a communication that every family should have, but no, we did not actually sit down and have that conversation,” he said. “For us, it was easy, because we knew Cassie and her mentality. There was not a person in our family who did not agree. But in some cases, not everyone knows the desires of their loved one. I think it’s very important to have that conversation, because in preparation for a moment like that, there’s no value you can put on that conversation.”
Waldrop also has been an organ donor “as long as I can remember,” he said. “It just made sense. There’s no reason not to be. You never know who you can help. When your earthly body dies, it isn’t going to do you any good. I think everyone should encourage everybody to be an organ donor. You can save lives.”
He agreed with Robison that it is a decision not to be taken lightly or made alone.
“The last thing you want to do is to sign up to be an organ donor and for LOPA to call and have it be a complete surprise to the family,” Waldrop said. “Because at the time they just aren’t wanting to deal with that.”
In addition to their own efforts to spread the word, all three men are committed to assisting LOPA with spreading the word. All three have participated in LOPA podcasts, training videos and a variety of public events.
One of LOPA’s public events is a flag raising ceremony outside Oschner LSU Health Academic Health Center. The LOPA flag is raised every time a donor’s organs are harvested. When the procedure is complete, the flag is lowered and presented to the donor’s family. Sugg said the first flag-raising ceremony was for a former Boy Scout, and Scouts from across the area came to participate.
LOPA also hosts an annual ceremony in which the families of organ donors are given butterflies to release. And this Christmas, LOPA will decorate a Christmas tree with ornaments from donor families.
Oschner LSU Health Academic Health Center recently received a Gold Award from LOPA for their partnership in promoting organ donation, Blakes said.
For Patterson, life now is “better than better and sweeter than sweet.”
“It was a tragedy,” he said. “But look what God did with that tragedy. Mama Jan, she feels the same way I do — out of that tragedy look what only God can do. The boys got her kidneys. A young girl got her heart. A 19-year-old who has cystic fibrosis got her lungs. She gave her all. That’s the part that helps Miss Jan. I always want her to be in a good mood because I love her so much.”
Robison said he is grateful to LOPA for supporting his family, and that he is confident about their decision. “We know beyond a shadow of a doubt my sister’s in heaven,” he said. “One brief moment of weakness does not determine your salvation. One bad decision that ended her life brought life to other people. She lived out her Christianity.”
The following organs can be harvested and transplanted:
- Small intestines
In addition, some tissues, including corneas and skin, can be transplanted.
For more information about the organ donation process, visit LOPA’s website at www.lopa.org.