Living Organ Donors Help Meet Growing Need For Those On Transplant Lists

May 20, 2016

Cassandra Werner sits with her brother Steve Debakawitz, to whom she donated a kidney last year.
Credit Virginia Alvino / 90.5 WESA

This month, Pittsburgh officials and members of the organization Donate Life are encouraging locals to consider becoming organ donors.

According to Donate Life, there are more than 8,000 people in Pennsylvania waiting to receive organ transplants. Most transplanted organs come from deceased donors, but just 46 percent of Pennsylvanians are registered eye, organ and tissue donors. While advocates are working to increase that number, they're also looking for more options to meet the demand.

For some, like Steve Debakawitz, that’s a living donor.

"It was a birth defect," said Debakawitz. "They were very small."

That’s what doctors told Debkawitz about his kidneys while in the hospital after an accident 10 years ago. It was discovered his kidneys weren’t functioning at full capacity.

He was evaluated and put on the organ transplant list expecting to wait the average three to four years for a new kidney. That wait time was abbreviated thanks to his sister, Cassandra Werner. 

"As long as I can live with one, he could have my other one,” Werner said. 

The two celebrated the successful transplant, completed last August, at a luncheon last week at Allegheny General Hospital honoring living donors. 

"I would do it again if I had another one to share," Werner said.

Dr. Lorenzo Machado is a surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, which performed about 100 transplants last year. He said organ transplants are very unique operations.

“We put a healthy patient at risk because of their sacrifice and their good will,” Machado said.

He said that kidney transplants, in particular, can be a sensitive topic for some.

“Many recipients who have kidney disease feel a stigma of having the disease, and many times don’t want to burden their family, friends with asking for a kidney transplant," he said.

Machado said doctors usually ask a family member to advocate on the patient’s behalf, but it can be hard to convince potential donors.

"Don’t rule yourself out,” Machado said, “meaning 'I’m not a good donor.’ Contact us, let us determine whether you’re a donor or not. We would never put a donor at risk."

Sixty-five year-old Rita Onega is very familiar with the transplant process. She wore a little plastic shield over her eye after a recent surgery, but she’s been in the hospital plenty of times before this.

Years ago, she was on the waiting list for a heart transplant.

"I was concerned that it would not come fast enough," said Onega. "I was worried for my family more than me."

After waiting three years, she got a new heart in 2011. Medication following that surgery put her on dialysis. Eventually, she needed a new kidney, too.

"When I found out that she needed a kidney, I said 'I have two, you can have ‘em,'" said Onega's daughter, Valerie Miller. Miller's only surgery before donating her kidney was a tonsillectomy.

"It took me a year to convince her to take it,” Miller said. “But finally she did it. We did it mom.”

"We certainly did," Onega answered. "She saved my life. I gave birth to her, and she ends up saving her mother’s life. Isn’t that amazing?"

Onega said she’s happy to be back in her normal routine. Valerie may have saved her mother, but her driver’s license shows that she isn’t even registered as an organ donor.

"It’s like, ‘You want to be an organ donor?' No,’" Miller said. "It’s something I never thought about."

Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.