A lifesaving mission

Marilynn and Tony Zeljeznjak, of Blacksburg, hold a picture of their granddaughter Sarah, who died at age 2 before she could get a lifesaving transplant. Now the couple, who spoke about their experience during a seminar at Winchester Medical Center on Friday, volunteer for LifeNet Health of Virginia Beach, and said everyone in their family has signed up to be an organ donor. Josette Keelor/Daily

One organ donor can save up to 50 people.

In a country in which more than 20 people die every day waiting for a transplant, that knowledge should be comforting, since the more awareness of organ donations, the more patients can benefit from transplants.

But the numbers don’t add up.

In the United States, 125,000 people are on a donation waiting list, according to Perry Lange, vice president of LifeNet Health, of Virginia Beach.

“It would be great if I could say the waiting lists are going down as more and more people donate, but [for] my generation, the baby boomers, the need is greater,” he said. “So unfortunately, as the donation rates have grown, the need has grown with it.”

Friday at LifeNet Health’s Organ Donation Collaborative at Winchester Medical Center, speakers shared ideas with other health care professionals and volunteers. Their goal was to help make donations of organs, tissue, ligaments, corneas and eyes more prevalent and accessible to those who need them.

“When we think donations, we think organ donations,” Lange said. Many don’t realize they can also donate to other needs.

In 2008, Vivian Walker of Winchester had a heart transplant after being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2001. She was one of the lucky few who received her donation only days after joining the list of thousands who wait for just the right match.

After receiving what she called a late Christmas/early New Year’s gift that year, she and her husband took their first vacation in 12 years as a married couple — a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that they’d had to postpone so long because of Walker’s poor health. Later, they became foster parents and last year adopted Tyrese, now 8.

“With my transplant, it allowed me to see life in a whole new aspect,” Walker said.

Marilynn and Tony Zeljeznjak, of Blacksburg, planned to tell a different story at Friday’s event. Following the death of their 2-year-old granddaughter Sarah, who was too sick to receive her donation when it became available, they became advocates for the cause.

“It became more and more of a passion for us,” Tony Zeljeznjak said. “If we can do something to prevent another child from going through this, we’ll do all we can to raise awareness.”

“Everyone in the family is listed as a donor,” he said.

Each hospital must have a system in place to be able to transfer organs, Lange said.

LifeNet Health, a state-designated agency that works with Virginia hospitals on accessing a network of organ donations, begins the process of organ transfers, and the United Network for Organ Sharing of Richmond coordinates the transfer.

A hierarchy of donations assesses several factors, such as a patient’s status and age, and the availability of a donor with a matching blood type.

But although most Americans are familiar with the need, they’re hesitant to sign up.

Many fear receiving substandard care if they’re ever on life support, should a need for their organs arise.

“That’s the number one question we always get, is will they do less care for me because they have 20 heart patients waiting,” Lange said. “Absolutely not. We are all medical professionals. No hospital will let you die, so no, it is a very clear hierarchy of care.”

At Friday’s seminar, speakers included new information on the tests hospitals perform when determining whether or not a patient can be saved.

“The tests are kind of still the same,” Lange said. “[But] the ways to do them are becoming much more finite. I learn something every time ’cause medicines change.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com