Champions Gala recognizes leaders

Munson Medical Center sent nearly 50 people to the Champions Gala

Congratulations to the more than 20 people and organizations recognized this year for their extraordinary efforts to promote organ, eye and tissue donation in Michigan.

Without them, and others like them, Gift of Life’s efforts to fulfill the decisions of donors and their families and to save and heal lives through transplantation would be difficult or impossible.

State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks and Chief Deputy Treasurer Jeff Guilfoyle

Rachael EubanksJeff GuilfoyleA ground-breaking idea to add a donor registration question to Michigan’s income tax forms needed support from the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Treasurer Rachael Eubanks and Chief Deputy Treasurer Jeff Guilfoyle saw an opportunity to help save lives. They advocated for the passage of the Check Your Heart Act, allowing taxpayers to say yes to donation as they complete their tax forms. Michigan is the first in the nation to enact this measure.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec

Felicia BrabecState Rep. Felicia Brabec is the first two-time champion awardee.

Her previous award was tied to her legislative work on the important Hope Act in 2022, but her advocacy was far from done. Last year, she introduced the historic Check Your Heart legislation. Felicia worked with the Department of Treasury on language, garnered bipartisan support and secured co-sponsors required for the act to become law.

As a result, Michigan is the first state to add the Donor Registry question to its income tax form.

Laura Lehman

Laura LehmanLaura Lehman has been a steady presence at Michigan’s Department of State, supporting Secretaries Terri Lynn Land, Ruth Johnson and Jocelyn Benson, respectively.

In her 17-plus years with the department, Laura has worked seamlessly with Gift of Life and Eversight to help plan the annual Donate Life Month press conference promoting the Donor Registry and advocates of donation. She also ensures organ, eye and tissue donation is promoted at events such as the Detroit Auto Show and shares donation messaging on the department’s social media and in other venues.

Dr. John Stanifer and Molly Stanifer
Kidney Companions

Molly and Dr. John StaniferNephrologist Dr. John Stanifer and his wife, Molly, saw an urgent need for more support for kidney patients in and around their hometown of Traverse City. Then they did something about it.

A key qualifying requirement for patients needing transplants is having at least two people to help with transportation and other post-surgery needs. The Stanifers’ compassion and creativity led to the launch of Kidney Companions, a nonprofit volunteer organization that’s saving lives by providing crucial patient support. Without it, many patients simply would not qualify.

Aarolyn McCullough

Aaroyn McCulloughAs a volunteer helping transplant patient families at Henry Ford Hospital, Aarolyn McCullough knows that out-of-towners face special challenges when supporting their family members. She has hatched a plan for Aarolyn’s House of Hope, a Detroit residence for families living more than 30 miles away.

Aarolyn — a liver recipient herself — established a foundation in 2021 and is fundraising to make her House of Hope a reality. It would be run by volunteers and have a kitchen and four to six rooms for those in need.

Chris Kowalski

Chris KowalskiChris Kowalski has shared his heart transplant story hundreds of times, pausing his medical billing work to address high school classes or spending summer Saturdays at Gift of Life events.
He’s a Super Speaker, who has so far spread the word about organ donation to thousands of people in dozens of schools. Chris, who is waiting for another heart transplant, has presented virtually while on vacation and even from a Detroit Tigers game.

Alena and Alisa Christian

Sisters Alena and Alisa Christian have shared their raw and inspiring experiences with donation and transplantation at every turn to let people see the importance of joining the Donor Registry and to show that the process benefits everyone, including people in multicultural communities.

Alena’s life was saved by a generous donor as her liver was failing in 2014. She was brave and open with her story, and local media told it with detail and facts that dispelled harmful myths. When she suffered kidney damage from sepsis, Alisa saved her life by donating one of her kidneys. Together, they are enthusiastic multicultural difference-makers in a community where it counts.

Sherry Johnson
Heart and kidney recipient

Sherry JohnsonSherry Johnson was admitted to University of Michigan Health in August to wait for a heart transplant. Daily updates, such as “I also need a kidney transplant,” that she texted to family and friends quickly turned into a public blog she shared with Gift of Life.
The Farmington Hills mom of two grown boys believed that by documenting her wait she might inspire others to register. After 76 days, Sherry recorded a raw cell phone video letting thousands know: “They have a donor for me.”

Lyniece McNair-Levi

Science teacher and tissue recipient Lyniece McNair-Levi invites Gift of Life’s All of Us program into her Grand Blanc High School classroom every year. Not just once, but three or four times, as she makes sure every student is educated about organ and tissue donation.
Lyniece refers the program to other science teachers and included Gift of Life Michigan in a college expo for her students so they would know that working in donation is a rewarding option in the medical field.

Tim Matz
Rochester Hills Fire Department

Kidney recipient Tim Matz wanted to elevate the message that donation saves lives, so as captain of the Rochester Hills Fire Department, he gave Gift of Life Michigan a mobile ad and more.
Last year, Tim and his fellow first responders wrapped ambulances with the Gift of Life logo and Check Your Heart campaign messaging, then designed shirts, raised the Donate Life flag and created a video with the city’s mayor to encourage residents to join the Donor Registry.

Malinda Herrera
Sparrow Hospital

Melinda Herrera, Neuro ICU nurse at Sparrow Hospital, will receive Gift of Life's 2024 Nurse Champion AwardMalinda Herrera has been a steady, intelligent, compassionate donation champion as an ICU bedside nurse at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing for more than a decade. She’s saved hundreds of lives by helping patients give their final gifts to others.
Malinda took that compassion to an extra level last fall by donating part of her liver to a patient in desperate need. She described her experience as “an amazing privilege to offer hope to another human.”

Dr. Adhnan Mohamed
Henry Ford Hospital

Henry Ford Hospital’s Dr. Adhnan Mohamed is so committed to the mission of donation that he’s been known to clear his schedule for emergency abdominal recoveries across the state, helping at a stressful time in the donation process.

Known by Gift of Life employees as “Dr. Mo” or even just “Mo,” he is a friendly, respectful, dependable and skilled surgeon who has recovered organs in the middle of the night and once with little notice on Thanksgiving Day.

Denise Lindeman
Corewell Health Beaumont Troy Hospital

As a nurse educator for the operating room and someone with a passion for donation, Denise Lindeman oversees all aspects of the process known as donation after circulatory death. She not only makes sure each donation is managed with detailed preparation and a crucial huddle for the OR team, but Denise also supports the ICU team as they make their way to the OR.
Denise also supports families during their loved one’s donation to ensure their experience is caring and professional.

Eric Jean
Munson Medical Center

Munson Medical Center Donation Liaison Eric Jean is a quiet, smart leader who steadfastly watches over the organ donation process in Traverse City.
As ICU manager, Eric steps in quickly to resolve barriers to donation, is dedicated to making sure referrals are made, attends honor walks, proactively educates and signs on to Gift of Life initiatives. Crucial to his role, Eric places a priority on ensuring the families of donors are cared for, respected and given the best experience possible.

Dr. Stephen Fitch
Corewell Health West

Medical Director Dr. Stephen Fitch at Corewell Health in Grand Rapids has been instrumental in his support of organ donation over the past year.

He has helped with everything from sensitive family situations requiring high-level input to process improvement, policy reviews and important support for registered donors and their families.

Dr. Fitch cares about patients, staff, donors, families, his community, transplant recipients and those who continue to wait.

Dr. Tim Frankel
Michigan Medicine

With the help of pancreases gifted for research, Dr. Tim Frankel and his team at Michigan Medicine published a paper in 2023 with never-before-seen results related to pancreatic biomarkers and cancer discovery.

His work displays remarkable innovation in both the methods of his research and the revolutionary results, which advance the study of cures for deadly pancreatic cancer. Dr. Frankel hosted a symposium in 2023 highlighting his team’s findings, its important partnership with Gift of Life Michigan and the generosity of donors.

Tom Buist
The Dodge Company

Tom Buist helps funeral professionals find innovative ways to care for organ and tissue donors as Michigan’s field representative for The Dodge Company, the largest supplier of embalming chemicals and cosmetics in the world.

As a “go-to” person for embalmers, Tom sees any technical challenge as an opportunity to educate and advocate for organ and tissue donation. He also addresses funeral industry concerns about donation with facts and solutions as he honors the legacies of donors and their families.

Dr. Stephen Cohle and Dr. David Start
Kent County

A culture of donation exists in the Kent County Medical Examiner’s office thanks to years of support from Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle and Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Start.

They’re willing to do what it takes to see donation through, even if it means weekend work or delayed autopsies. The investigators also piloted a successful ME iPad program for referrals at death scenes. Digital notifications to Gift of Life speed the time-sensitive tissue donation process, allowing more donors to help more patients.

Krista Veine
Corewell Health West

Krista Veine, manager of Corewell Health West’s transplant program, shows up for the donation and transplant community to heighten awareness in Grand Rapids and beyond.

She helps as a volunteer, sponsor, organizer and friend. Corewell is active in National Donate Life Month, is a key partner for Donate Life Night at the Zoo and last year paid for a bus to transport donor families, recipients and others to Lansing for the important Check Your Heart Rally. It all happens with Krista’s backing and passion.

Jill Soave
Mother of Justin Shilling

Jill Soave, the mother of Justin Shilling, one of four students killed in the 2021 Oxford High School shooting, has exemplified what it means to honor life through donation since the early days after her family’s tragedy.

Just weeks after Justin saved six lives through donation, Jill partnered with Gift of Life Michigan to provide a Justin teddy bear for every student at Oxford High School. They were traumatized, grieving and needing something to hold onto.

In June, Jill was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Michigan Pediatric Trauma Conference. She tailored her message to the audience of pediatric nurses and doctors, focusing on how donation helped her, and her family experience hope in their darkest hour. She shared Justin’s story and stressed the importance of giving families an opportunity to donate.

Several nurses later told Jill and Gift of Life that they would be changing their thoughts and practices. A seasoned trauma surgeon thanked her for making him cry and giving him a perspective on what happens after his team has signed off.

This fall, she was one of three donor family members who agreed to talk about their raw experiences in the moments they made the decision to donate on behalf of their family members. The testimonials will be used by Gift of Life coordinators and others to help families decide in real time if donation is right for them.

Patty Jo Herndon
Michigan Donor Family Council

When Patty Jo Herndon’s sister, Ellen Sullivan, suffered a fatal brain aneurysm in 1997, she was there to honor her wish to become an organ donor. Ellen’s legacy as an organ, eye and tissue donor was set in motion that day.

Patty Jo now has a legacy of her own.

She has spent nearly three decades as a compassionate, driven and influential leader in Michigan’s donation and transplant community.
April marks the 20th anniversary of the Michigan Donor Family Council (MDFC), a nonprofit co-founded with Patty Jo’s leadership and determination to honor Ellen, other donors and the families that grieve for them.

The MDFC began the state’s comfort blanket program, providing at least one for every donor family to lend them warmth and solace. The group offers scholarships to donor family members and gives a photo button of donors and a tree sapling to every family at the annual Michigan Donor Family Gathering. The MDFC also has added thousands of names to the Donor Registry.

The MDFC also secured legislation to make the Donate Life license plate available to the state’s drivers, and Patty Jo’s service on Eversight’s Board of Directors has given cornea donation a spotlight with her commitment to its mission to save and restore sight.
Patty Jo’s service extends nationally as a member of the Board of Trustees for MTF Biologics, the world’s largest tissue bank headquartered in New Jersey.

Munson Medical Center

Staff at Munson Medical Center are very supportive of donationMunson Medical Center in Traverse City excelled in organ and tissue donation last year, nearly doubling its numbers by helping fulfill the decisions of 22 organ donors, and their families. It also more than doubled its tissue donors with 56 who healed the lives of others. That was the fourth highest in the state.

But numbers are just the start.

Munson’s former President and CEO Matt Wille — who left earlier this year for a new opportunity — is a champion himself, having earned Gift of Life’s executive leader award just last year for his donation advocacy.

Matt, who believes donation is part of a hospital’s mission, led the hospital by example and had a hand in creating a culture of donation in Traverse City. Munson’s team of executive leaders is equally committed.

There are others at Munson: The hospital’s Donation Liaison, Eric Jean, contributes at the highest level there as he manages the ICU. His team is proactive, engaged and dedicated to honoring the decisions of registered donors.

Munson Medical Center also flies the Donate Life flag every day of the year to honor donors and their families. A Legacy Cart was developed in collaboration with Gift of Life to hold supplies for families spending hours and days at the hospital, and a map of the nation makes donation real by pinpointing the transplant centers where organs from Munson donors save lives.

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