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Marathon organ transplant session increases awareness for organ donation

Marathon organ transplant session increases awareness for organ donation

By Wendy Leonard | Posted - Mar. 23, 2011 at 9:23 p.m.

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MURRAY — Karen Wright already lost two children and she wasn't going to let a rare kidney disease take another.

"I just knew that there would be something, someday for her," she said. "It's your daughter; you'll do whatever you need to do."

Earlier this month, after 20 years of traveling across the country to attend what she called "kidney conventions" and visiting various doctors in numerous states, her daughter, Valeri Wright Zachary, received a much-anticipated, yet unexpected phone call.

It was one of many phone calls the Intermountain Medical Center's transplant program made earlier this month, when they performed seven transplants in five days.

Zachary, 40, had already rejected one kidney and doctors told her that with her condition, it would be hard to find a match. She was expecting to wait at least two years, maybe even longer.

However, an organ donor had recently died from a motorcycle accident, giving Zachary, and many others, a second shot at life.

"I'd say thank you, but that's not enough," she said Wednesday. Zachary, who lives in Las Vegas, made a quick trip to Salt Lake the same night she received the phone call. She was shocked, but excited at the possibility of being able to enjoy life and travel with her husband and two children again.

She'd been on kidney dialysis — for nearly five hours, every other day — for the past 20 years.

"In Utah, we are fortunate that we have some of the highest percentages of our population signing up to be organ donors compared to anywhere in the country," said Dr. Willem Van der Werf, director of IMC's transplant program. He said they perform 150 transplants each year and end up sending a lot of usable organs elsewhere in the western states region.

She's lived with rejection for so long. I'm just elated that this seems to have worked for her. I couldn't be happier.

–Karen Wright

But the period between March 2 and March 6, he said, was one of the busiest times he's experienced with seven separate transplants.

"It is unusual to have this many in such a short period of time," Van der Werf said.

Kristie Baker, a registered nurse and transplant coordinator for IMC, said it was "really crazy" trying to find matches, inform the patients and doctors involved and organize all of the transplants.

"We have one hour to make the final decision and let them know," she said. "We make a lot of phone calls and there are a lot of scared, nervous people."

Zachary was one of the seven patients at IMC who received an organ from three deceased donors during that time.

"In our business, we can never predict when people are going to die and donate their organs," Van der Werf said, adding that each donor can potentially donate seven or eight organs, as well as their eyes and tissue.

"It's pretty amazing the benefit that can come from one very tragic event," he said.

From the various events, transplant surgeons were able to use five kidneys and two livers. Juan Salazar, 69, was also among the grateful recipients. He received a kidney after just two months of waiting, which doctors said is unusual.

His kidneys failed after years of warnings about his high blood pressure, but Salazar said he "wasn't sure what they were talking about." He was very happy he didn't have to wait long and that he's added years to his life. He's already looking for ways to give back.

"I'm going to go put myself on the list. I don't know what they'd take, but I will," Salazar said.

Zachary is also among the list of registered donors and said that even if they end up using her organs for research, it will be worth it. And now that she's made it past the initial 12 hours, which was when her first transplant failed, she is working on learning how to use her bladder, something her body has not done for 20 years.

"She's lived with rejection for so long," her mother, a Hurricane resident, said. "I'm just elated that this seems to have worked for her. I couldn't be happier."

Five of the seven transplant recipients have been released from the hospital and two remain under the care of doctors at IMC. The hospital reports that 10 Americans die each day while waiting for an organ transplant. The goal of the program at IMC is to raise awareness about the importance of being an organ donor and the lives that can be saved by organ donation.

While doctors said organs are seemingly readily available for transplant, the aging population is creating a growing need for kidneys and other important and life-saving and functioning organs. Improving technology, like dialysis and other methods, Van der Werf said, is also keeping people alive much longer than ever before.

Visit for more information on becoming an organ donor in Utah.


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Wendy Leonard


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