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‘I don’t take a single day for granted’

Rachel juxtapose heart recipient

Lansing woman advocates for organ, tissue donation on National Donor Day

Rachel Kuntzsch was 44, healthy and active when sudden onset congestive heart failure upended and threatened her life in 2018.

“In eight days, I went from thinking I had bronchitis to needing a new heart,” she said. “My family was bracing for the worst.”

Kuntzsch became so sick so fast that she was urgently placed on the heart transplant waiting list at University of Michigan Transplant Center in Ann Arbor. News that a generous donor’s heart was a match for her came a mere 24 hours later.

“The greatest hero I never knew gave me a second chance at life,” she said this week. “His decision to be an organ donor has allowed me to live a full life. I don’t take a single day for granted. Words can never fully express the depth of my gratitude.”

Monday, Feb. 14, is National Donor Day, set aside to honor donors and donor families, celebrate the stories of transplant recipients, and encourage others to add their name to the national Organ Donor Registry.

Donors like the one who saved Rachel Kuntzsch are giving their final gifts at an unprecedented rate nationwide and here in Michigan. This state broke another record last month with 44 organ donors.

That new milestone follows a record year in 2021 with 429 organ donors – a 14% increase from 2020. Those organs resulted in 1,089 transplants. Also last year: 1,464 people donated tissue and more than 250,000 names were added to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

“We simply cannot say ‘thank you’ enough times to donors who give new life to very sick patients,” said Dorrie Dils, president and CEO of Gift of Life Michigan. Kuntzsch is living proof, Dils said, and – like so many other recipients – her gratitude is endless.

“A total stranger saved Rachel,” Dils continued. “We know she’s living her life to the fullest with her family, her friends, her successful career, and her own willingness to give back.”

Despite a record number of donors, the need remains critical.

As of Feb. 1, more than 2,500 people are waiting for life-saving transplants in Michigan; about 106,000 need transplants nationwide.

Twenty people die every day waiting in the U.S., and one person is added to the national list about every 10 minutes.

Gift of Life Michigan remains committed to increasing the number of registered donors, as well as improving processes that will make the gifts more viable.

Last year, Gift of Life joined the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO) in its commitment to help facilitate 50,000 transplants by 2026. Plans are underway to hire more staff at Gift of Life Michigan to increase outreach efforts, work more seamlessly with the state’s 175 hospitals, and ensure all possibilities for organ and tissue donation are pursued.

“We work hard every day to push for one more: one more person registered, one more life saved, one more donor honored,” Dils said. “Our goal and our hope is that no one will die waiting for a transplant. With our dedicated staff, hospital and transplant center partners, the support of the community and, most of all, the incredible generosity of donors and their families, I know we will get there.”

To sign up as a donor, click here.

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