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Families of organ donors join recipients to celebrate gifts of life

SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Owen had picked out a beautiful tree under which he wanted to spend the final moments of his life.

He was weak and suffering from a genetic disorder that unbeknownst to him had slowly been stealing his life away.

"I just always thought I had eaten something bad or was just sick," Owen, now 46, recalls.

As his condition worsened, Owen was bloated and his eyes and skin had yellowed, leading doctors to put him on a liver transplant waitlist. And that's where he remained for 41 days in 2014 before being given a second chance at life.

The families of organ, eye and tissue donors gathered with recipients this week to remember their gifts of life and sight. Without them, Owen would not be celebrating Christmas this year.

Even though more than 1.5 million Utahns have enlisted as potential donors, there are 120,000 Americans awaiting life-saving organs that may result from a direct match of an untimely death.

Organ donation "provides a wide spectrum of blessings," said Intermountain Donor Services public education director Alex McDonald. The loss of one life, under the right circumstances, he said, could save up to nine other lives.

And that doesn't include lives that can be saved by living kidney donations, such as the one Manuel Ramirez received from a gracious co-worker in 2014.

Ramirez, a manager at the Red Iguana restaurant, had ignored the diagnosis of failing kidneys he received in his teens. He felt good enough and didn't have health insurance to cover the cost of medications intended to treat his condition.

It wasn't until he received news of his kidneys functioning at just 9 percent of what they should that Ramirez took things more seriously.

And thankfully, while discussing it with co-worker Cynthia Martinez, she said she would step up and donate one of hers.

"It's amazing how that gift of life can change your life," Ramirez said, noting that nearly 100,000 Americans are awaiting kidney donations. "You only need one kidney to live a healthy life."

Martinez said she has experienced no complications from her selfless gift, which she calls a "quick and easy decision," and she was very pleased with the process of donation.

Now, Martinez encourages people she meets to get involved and help save lives.

Keri Stephens relishes the memories of her oldest child and only son, Anthony Whitaker, who died accidentally at age 13 six years ago.

Stephens said it was "heartbreaking" and "soul-crushing" to lose him, but being a proponent of organ donation, her decision for Anthony to help others with donation of his organs was easy.

"I knew that he'd want what he no longer needed to go to people who needed it," she said.

Anthony's organs, Stephens said, "changed the lives of eight people, including giving sight to two."

She considers her son a hero, as his gifts "continue to bring joy to my family's hearts."

Medical technology now provides for transplantation of the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas and intestines, as well as tissues that include corneas, tendons, valves, veins, skin and bones.

And while tissue donation can come from any circumstance of death, organs must come from people who die on a ventilator or on life support at a hospital, which makes just 2 percent of all deaths eligible for organ donation.

As of Wednesday, 805 Utahns were awaiting lifesaving organs. Of those, 188 are waiting for a new liver, as their own may have deteriorated from disease or other conditions.

About 530 Utahns are awaiting kidneys, 65 need a new heart, 17 need a kidney/pancreas combination, three are awaiting lung transplantation, and two need a new pancreas, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Keith Robinson remains optimistic, despite being on kidney dialysis for the past three years. Robinson said his condition "doesn't stop me from doing what I want to do," but he misses working and wants to go back to that.

"I'm praying every day for a new kidney," Robinson said, pleading with Utahns to register as organ donors.

In addition to the lives saved, countless families and friends are touched by organ donation, McDonald said.

"When you get a gift like that, you look at things differently," Owen said. "You treat people differently. You live differently."

Owen's darkest days were full of regret and apologies for people he had wronged in his past. Now, with what he calls a "perfectly healthy liver" from a young man who died unexpectedly in New Mexico, Owen wants "to live with no regrets."

"I'm a better person because of the experience," he said, adding that the family of his liver donor expects him to live a good and full life.

"People need to know there's hope out there," Owen said. "You have a choice of saving people's lives. It's the greatest gift you can give."

To learn more about organ, eye and tissue donation, or to register as a donor, visit www.yesutah.org.