PLAINFIELD, NJ — In 2012, Plainfield resident Keath Gerald got more than he bargained for when he met with his doctor for a precautionary appointment. Gerald’s swollen ankles, along with the water weight he’d been putting on, led him to believe there was something wrong with his body, but he wasn’t sure what.
After the visit, over the phone, “the doctor said, ‘it’s not cancer,’ so we thought it was just the flu or something,” said Gerald, who was still in college at the time. “When we saw him, he said ‘you have an irregular heartbeat. You need to go to a cardiologist today, and set an appointment.’”
It turned out Gerald needed a transplant to survive, like 2,000 other New Jerseyans right now. Gerald’s medical condition changed his life: His heart was in “failing mode,” he says, pumping at only 32 percent. He couldn’t work out, or push his body to anywhere near its limit. After he passed out one day, in 2013, doctors gave him a defibrillator to control his heartbeat, and then put him on medicine with damaging side effects.
“For a few months, in 2015, I was trying to get on these waiting lists. I was on this medicine, this IV pump, with a very strong drug. It helped my heartbeat, but it also hurt me, so I couldn’t stay on it it long,” said Gerald. “It was urgent I get my heart transplant in time.”
Gerald, like 530 other people last year, got the surgery he desperately needed through the New Jersey Sharing Network, a New Providence-based nonprofit founded in 1987. The organization smashed its own record for transplants last year with 531, up 37 percent from 2014’s figure, a feat CEO and President Joe Roth attributes to increased awareness of organ donations.
“Quite frankly, I think we’re starting to get traction with our public education programs. All around the country, there are 58 organizations like the Sharing Network, and every one is charged with doing public education to improve organ donations. We’re learning to do it better and better, and the public is becoming more receptive to the concept,” said Roth. “They keep seeing, or running into, or coming into contact with people who have received a transplant, or families who become organ donors. They understand the need for it.”
Kidneys were the most commonly donated organs, according to a release from the New Jersey Sharing Network, followed by liver, heart, lungs, pancreas and intestines. Tissue donations included corneas, bone grafts, skin grafts, ligaments and heart valves. Gerald went in for a heart transplant, in August 2015, and ended up getting a new liver when doctors found one of his had been ravaged by his heart condition.
Not everyone was able to live out a success story like Gerald: Last year, 90 people in New Jersey died while waiting for a transplant. Many of Gerald’s friends, he says, are still waiting as well. One-third of people waiting for a kidney transplant have been waiting for more than three years.
That’s why Gerald, Roth and others in the transplant community are doing their best to spread awareness about the impact of organ donations. Everything helps, they say, from small, day-to-day incidents — Gerald gladly tells his story to people when they ask what his “Donate Life” bracelet is for — to large, coordinated events which bring organ recipients and donors together.
To that end, the New Jersey Sharing Network regularly organizes 5-K walks, including an event in June at their New Providence headquarters, where Roth expects 10,000 people to rally. The organization also reaches out to teenagers through the “High School Heroes” program.
“It’s analogous to the ‘stop smoking’ campaigns or the ‘don’t do drugs’ campaigns,” said Roth. “You start with the young people, start educating them about how important it is they become organ donors.”
One of the statistics which transplant nonprofits like to use is that “one organ and tissue donor can save up to eight lives, and restore health to 50 others,” says Gerald. In his particular case, Gerald’s life — and the lives of up to seven others — was saved, thanks to someone’s donation. Gerald walks at 5-K’s, gets back into the gym whenever he can, and talks about his experiences from the past four years at local churches.
But even saying that you can affect 50 lives by becoming an organ donor, adds Gerald, is an inadequate way to explain what a life-changing impact it can mean for others.
“They say organ transplants save eight lives and affect 50 other lives, but think about the other people that it changes. When the donor saved my life, he also gave a mother and father their son back, my sister her brother back — so it helped my whole family. It’s almost a whole community of people,” said Gerald. “It changed my whole outlook on life. I realized everyone can help each other, and through praying for each other — we’re all in this together. Even in death, you can help someone else by giving somebody your organs, and that’s amazing.”