COLUMBIA — Two years ago, Becky Nelson lost her son, Austin, 16, in an automobile accident eight miles from their home in Freeburg after he fell asleep at the wheel.
"He was truly a gift, a gift you cherish, one that will never and cannot ever be replaced," Nelson said. "A person realizes that more so when that gift is gone.”
At about the same time, Bob Wilson's kidneys were working at 15 percent of their capacity, and he was faced with going on kidney dialysis or finding a compatible donor.
Nelson’s tragedy turned into Wilson’s blessing.
Wilson and Nelson were connected through a mutual friend and had the transplant at University Hospital, which, for the fourth consecutive year, has won a Medal of Honor for Organ Donation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s a bizarre relationship when you consider that you’re standing there basically in great health because of the tragedy that occurred to their child," said Wilson, 63, a retired lobbyist from Jefferson City. "That’s how it is in the real world of organ transplants. Someone as a rule is giving something up, and, many times, it's life.”
Nelson said her son had told her from age 15 that if anything happened to him, he wanted to donate his organs.
"Just to know Austin lives on in others is a miracle," she said. "Austin saved five lives with his organs."
Urologist Mark Wakefield, who directs the renal transplant program at University Hospital, said the hospital performed 28 kidney transplants last year. Acceptance of organ donation depends on several factors such as the age and health of the donor, age and urgency of need of the recipient, the circumstance of the death of the donor and the degree of match.
"The number of patients referred to our center for evaluation for transplant each year averages about 140 patients," Wakefield said. "At any time at our center, about 85 patients are listed awaiting a kidney."
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, as of 2009 more than 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for organ transplants. A major reason that the number of available transplantable organs is below the number needed is because of a lack of organ donation by those who would qualify.
"So the government said, 'Well, how can we improve the number of organs available if we can’t really change the number of people that could be donors?'" Wakefield said. “The answer is get more people to say yes and improve our ability to take care of those organs, and that’s where a lot of our efforts have gone into.”
University Hospital joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative in 2004 in response to the national shortage of transplantable organs.
Lori Kramer Clark, hospital services coordinator for Midwest Transplant Network, explained how using the term "collaborative" was an organ donation revolution in 2003. University Hospital partners with the Midwest Transplant Network, which provides organ and tissue donation services.
"The government offered out to the nation to team-lead this revolution that said, ‘Hey, we are going to give you the framework, and we’re going to give you the basics but we need you to show up at the table and together the answers are in this room,'” Kramer Clark said.
As a result of this collaboration, University Hospital’s organ donation rate increased from 61 percent in 2005 to more than 75 percent in 2007. University Hospital was among more than 400 of the nation's largest hospitals awarded the 2009 Medal of Honor for Organ Donation for achieving these organ donation consent rates at or above 75 percent over a year.
A consent rate is the number of times a family or patient has agreed to donate organs. Often a consent process will include a discussion of the available options and counseling to assist patients or their families in deciding whether organ donation is the right choice for them.
Some factors that have allowed University Hospital to be eligible for the medal are having patients who are eligible for organ donation, having a trauma program and having a large enough hospital to handle a larger patient volume.
University Hospital was also acknowledged for its 20 percent growth in its renal transplant program.
“One of the things we did to do that was we streamlined and increased the personnel in the evaluation of the patients who are potential candidates for receiving kidney transplants,” Wakefield said.
Wilson, the kidney recipient, keenly recognizes that his life dramatically changed for the better because he got an organ from a young man who died.
"I have an obligation to him to do everything I can to live my life the best I can and also educate as many people as I can that organ transplants and organ donations are nothing to be fearful of," Wilson said. "It's life-giving, and it's one of the most powerful gifts.”