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Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2000:01:01 00:02:56

STAFF PHOTOS/BROOKE WILLIAMS Four organ transplant recipients were present at Tyler Memorial Hospital’s Gift of Life celebration. From left are Dana Nestor, Chris Polk, Leslie Sorg and Jeff Crass holding up fingers to show how many years have passed since their respective transplants.

Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2000:01:01 00:00:35

SUSAN KOOMAR

Thousands of Pennsylvania residents are awaiting life-saving organ transplants right now, and countrywide, around 20 people will die before it’s their turn on the wait list.

In celebration of Donate Life Month and Blue and Green Day, Tyler Memorial Hospital collaborated with Gift of Life, the region’s organ and tissue transplant network, to raise awareness of the importance of organ and tissue donation.

“There are special events and activities going on throughout our region to promote organ and tissue donation to encourage people to have the donor designation on their driver’s license to help save and heal lives, and to honor our donors, who are heroes,” Gift of Life Community Relations Coordinator for northeastern Pennsylvania Susan Koomar explained.

On Friday, four organ transplant recipients helped raise the Donate Life flag outside of Tyler to show support for Donate Life Month’s message.

This included heart transplant recipients Leslie Sorg, Dana Nestor and Jeff Crass, as well as kidney transplant recipient Chris Polk.

Tyler CNO Judy Ragukas said having the recipients present helps others see the impact they could make by registering to be donors.

“We’re fortunate that we have recipients in our area and for other people to see them and how healthy they are,” she said.

Next month, Crass will celebrate the four-year anniversary of his transplant.

At 39, he had a heart attack, but didn’t realize it and didn’t go to the hospital until a day later.

Crass had an emergency surgery and ended up with a pacemaker. Eventually, he needed to be put on a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to keep his heart moving until he could receive a transplant.

After being placed on the waiting list, he waited over a year for his transplant.

Waiting around was difficult, said Crass, who was still trying to run his business and go about his life while being connected to devices that were keeping him alive.

Before receiving the heart he has now, he got a call to come in for a transplant and was put under anesthesia in an operating room, but the transplant unfortunately didn’t work out.

“When I came to, I still had the LVAD and the batteries connected. I didn’t have the new heart. At that point, I got a little depressed,” he said. “But it all worked out great. I haven’t had any rejections. It’s given me a new life, a new outlook on life.”

In the past four years, Crass has been able to see births, weddings and “all kinds of fun, exciting things” that he maybe wouldn’t have been able to experience without the transplant.

This experience also led him to his partner, Sorg, who he met while waiting for his transplant.

Sorg, an emergency room nurse at Tyler, said it’s important for everyone to know that so many others are out there waiting.

She spent four months in the hospital awaiting her transplant on top of months spent waiting beforehand. During this time, she met a 29-year-old man who was also in need of a transplant.

When he finally received his heart after 18 months, he died two weeks later because he just wasn’t strong enough when his time finally came.

“I’ve watched my children get married, graduate college, and have grandchildren in the last five years and I would love to see other people have that instead of what the poor guy that I waited with had,” she said.

One organ donor can save up to eight lives, Koomar said, and being a tissue donor can help people in a variety of other ways.

“One tissue donor can help dozens of people through corneas to provide the gift of sight, skin to heal burn victims, bone and ligaments for orthopedic injuries, veins for heart bypass and heart valves for children with heart defects,” she said.

There’s no age limit to be an organ donor, and those who wish to change their donation status do not need to wait until their driver’s license is up for renewal.

Individuals can register to become organ honors at any time, Koomar said, and people who register should share their wishes with their families in addition to encouraging them to register too.

Ragukas said this was the first time Tyler hosted the flag raising and Gift of Life celebration, but she hopes it becomes an annual event.

“We’re hoping to keep it up every year so we can participate and raise awareness and educate the public, the community and our staff about how important organ donation is,” she said.

In conjunction with other Commonwealth Health hospitals, Tyler is participating in the Gift of Life Challenge to reach a certain ranking through a point system by continuing to raise awareness.

Ragukas said the potential award is secondary to the positive impacts of increasing the number of donors.

“You’re giving someone another life that they wouldn’t have had,” she said.