A publication of Gift of Life Michigan • Fall 2023 • Volume 2 • Issue 2

Lansing heart recipient saves lives by telling her story of hope

Life was “exceedingly rich” for Rachel Kuntzsch when it nearly slipped into darkness forever.

She was happy, 44 and her Lansing consulting firm was thriving. Rachel was a strong, vibrant mom, friend, daughter and wife. Time spent with her college-sweetheart husband, David, and their two boys involved travel, sports, kayaks and long hikes on beautiful trails.

Everything changed over the course of just a few days in November 2018. Rachel became noticeably winded while doing seemingly simple activities.

“I was doing yoga and having a hard time catching my breath. I thought I was worn down,” she said. “Over the course of a weekend, I couldn’t lay down without gasping for air.”

A mother’s legacy; a son’s pride

A message from President & CEO Dorrie Dils

Eight-year-old Ollie stood on his toes at the lectern on the steps of the Capitol in Lansing and belted out just one sentence: “Mama Shayna was a hero!”

More than 400 people were with us in June for our annual Check Your Heart Rally and heard that sweet boy who never knew his mother. But Ollie, who was just 1 when Shayna Sturtevant died, knows something pretty special about “Mama Shayna.” She gave so much and helped so many.

We were at the Capitol to celebrate the imminent passage of the Check Your Heart Act in the Senate that week.

Gift of Life's President & CEO Dorrie Dils greets Deb Wyant and young Ollie on the Capitol steps. Ollie is holding a stuffed Hartley doll.Ollie was there with his Grandma Debra Wyant as she spoke to the crowd about Shayna, who died seven years ago of a brain abscess stemming from an ear infection. She was just 21. Shayna not only donated three organs, but she was also Michigan’s first and only hand donor. Minutes before Deb and Ollie spoke, they joined more than 100 donor families, patients on the waiting list, transplant recipients and living donors for a march to the Capitol steps.

I was waiting for them there and it was so moving to watch as they all filed up the stairs and came together all around me. It reminded me of the hundreds of people who depend on us to do our work at the highest level.

I was proud and humbled to be part of it all.

As if Ollie’s words about his mom and the beautiful walk weren’t enough, something special happened after we closed the program. During her time at the lectern, Deb mentioned that Ollie wanted to know more about how his mom helped other people, and she welcomed transplant recipients to talk with her grandson after the program.

I watched later as a man asked Deb if he could speak with Ollie. He sat down and had what appeared to be a serious chat. I could tell by the tears in the eyes of Ollie’s family that what he had to say about how Mama Shayna helped others was perfect.

We can’t bring Ollie’s mother back or fill the void of growing up without his mom. But I hope Ollie will always carry in his heart what an incredible gift Shayna gave and know there is a community of recipients who are thankful for her — and for him.

It felt like Ollie had hundreds of moms and dads embracing him that day.

This is what being an organ and tissue donor does for donor families. It never replaces grief or loss, but it gives them pride and comfort knowing their loved one helped others with their gifts.

I hope we can all think of Ollie as we encourage others to Check Your Heart and sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry so they can be heroes, just like Mama Shayna.

New law lets residents sign up via tax forms

Michigan residents who haven’t yet added their names to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry will have a new and easy way to do so in 2024.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed the Check Your Heart Act into law in July, making Michigan the first state in the country to enable residents to add their names to the Donor Registry on their state income tax forms.

They can do so in the spring as they complete their forms for the 2023 tax year.

Patrick Wells-O'Brien is the VP of communications and external relations

Washington, D.C., briefing educates Michigan’s congressional staffers

The Capitol building in Washington DC
Photo credit: Louis Velazquez on unsplash

Gift of Life hosted a May briefing in Washington, D.C. for health policy and legislative staff from Michigan’s Congressional delegation on issues facing this organ donation program and others nationwide.

The goal: Educate policymakers on the growth and success of Gift of Life and correct misinformation about organ procurement organizations (OPOs). Critics portray the nation’s system as failing. Until no one dies waiting for an organ, Gift of Life and other OPOs agree that the system needs to improve. However, the U.S. organ donation system is ranked first in the world and is not failing.

Cindy Zarate in blue scrubs in the ICU

Staff Spotlight: Cindy Zarate takes care of donors in the days, hours and minutes before they give their final gifts

Donation Coordinator Cindy Zarate squeezes a terry cloth towel soaked with warm, soapy water and slowly wipes it across the arms of a man whose […]

Double lung transplant recipient Debora Dearring

Volunteer Spotlight: Gift of lungs motivates Debora Dearring to share her own spirit and compassion

Debora Dearring lived at Henry Ford Hospital for nine months, seven of them waiting and praying for a double lung transplant that would save her life. The days and months were long and she was […]

A donor heart under ice in a sterile cooler

Heart study with Stanford University results in more transplants

Gift of Life Michigan has worked for years to find new ways to increase the use of donor organs for transplantation. One five-year study, in particular, revealed such dramatic and significant findings that Michigan’s organ donation program changed its protocols […]

Gift of Life’s gala generates thousands for critical programs

Popular signature event will grow in 2024

The annual Champions Gala honoring people and organizations across the state is thriving thanks to the generosity of sponsors supporting the annual event recognizing the best of the best in the donation and transplant community.

The sixth celebration of excellence will expand in 2024 to allow for greater sponsorship and partnership opportunities and higher attendance with individual tickets available for sale for the first time. The gala will have capacity for as many as 500 guests, roughly double the size of past events.

Mark your calendar: Next year’s cocktail-attire celebration of those who champion donation at the highest level is set for Thursday, April 4, at Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi.

Nominations in nearly two dozen champion award categories — including honors for Hospital of the Year, Legacy and Honoring Life Through Donation — open on Oct. 16 and close on Nov. 30.

Many blue and green, rounded glass awards with black pedestals sit on a table waiting to be presented.

Gift of Life sets organ and tissue records – again

Milestones keep coming in Michigan

Gift of Life Michigan helped a record 63 people become organ donors in May, resulting in another record 167 organs transplanted in a single month.

That same month saw the highest number of tissue donors — 177 — ever. And that milestone fell in June when 179 donors gave gifts of tissue for healing and mobility.

“On the national front, our colleagues are asking ‘What’s going on in Michigan?’” said Dorrie Dils, Gift of Life’s president and CEO. “I tell them our teams are dedicated and, as part of that, we’re focused on our opportunities to increase donors so we can help the people who depend on us.

“And, of course, donors and their families really want to save and heal lives. We’re helping them do that.”

Dorrie said a few changes have helped. They include hiring more staff, offering more donation education in schools statewide, including the U.P., and marketing efforts that include the Check Your Heart campaign.

Donation and transplants are on the rise across the nation. Still, with more than 100,000 patients waiting nationwide for life-saving organs, neither Gift of Life nor its contemporaries can rest, Dorrie said. About 2,400 are waiting for organs in Michigan.

“Our work is so important and as long as there is a list of patients waiting in Michigan and the U.S., we must strive to do more.”

Graphic showing that there were 63 organ donors and 167 transplants in May, and 179 tissue donors in June 2023
Two teenage girls wearing "cornea glasses" that distort vision.

“All of Us” surges in popularity at schools across Michigan

There’s a buzz in the air when Gift of Life Michigan educators arrive at a school with their red trunk of supplies and plasticized real human organs used to teach about donation and transplant. The All of Us education program is a real draw. “Everybody hears that we’re there,” said Alison Gillum, senior community relations coordinator at Gift of Life. Curious teachers pop in for a look. Students chatter about it in the halls. “When we leave, the people in the office tell us, ‘We’ve been hearing about you guys all day.’”
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Newborn baby wrapped in orange towel with headband

Baby Jade Townsend saves the life of another infant

One of Gift of Life Michigan’s smallest donors – baby Jade Townsend, who lived for just 55 minutes in 2021 – saved the life of another infant this spring. But perhaps her most compelling and lasting legacy is an important protocol change. That’s because Gift of Life Michigan – on behalf of Jade and her parents – asked LeMaitre Vascular in Massachusetts to consider taking Jade’s valve despite her birth weight of just 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
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Check Your Heart graphic featuring Aimee Cruz saying "I'm here today because someone checked their heart."

Using digital marketing to save lives

Gift of Life Michigan's "Check Your Heart" campaign is using data and telling the stories of donors, their families and organ and tissue recipients whose lives are changed by their gifts.
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Guadalupe Alejos, who received a kidney transplant 50 years ago, standing in front of the Kidney Transplant Center sign

Transplant Throwback: Guadalupe Alejos 

In this series we are looking back with transplant recipients and learning how they are making the most of their second chance at life. In this issue we talk with Guadalupe Alejos, who received a kidney transplant from his brother 50 years ago!
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Donation Facts

Think again if you believe you’re too old to be a donor

One of the greatest myths related to organ and tissue donation is that there’s a strict age limit and that older people couldn’t possibly save the lives of others.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, more than 25% of organ donors in Michigan last year were 60 or older. Twenty of the state’s 463 donors in 2022 were 70 or older.

Each was able to save at least one life.

“Please don’t rule yourself out,” said Bruce Nicely, VP of Donation Optimization at Gift of Life Michigan. “We help donors of all ages save lives, including a handful every year who are 75 or older. Please, if you want to give the gift of life, just join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.”

Thousands of older people save lives across the country each year with gifts of kidneys, livers and other organs. Some were even in their 80s or 90s.

Your medical condition at the time of your death will determine whether your organs are healthy enough to help another person. And while someone with heart disease, for example, can’t donate their heart, they might qualify to donate a kidney. Age isn’t a factor in and of itself. Organ health is.

And tissue donors can be even older. Case in point: Gift of Life helped 101-year-old Katherine Steck of Jackson become a tissue donor in 2022. Her family was thrilled to know her decision to help others was honored. She had the heart on her driver’s license.

“We’ve had tissue donors well into their 90s,” Bruce said. “With tissue donation, those grafts can be strengthened and used regardless of the age of the donor.”

Bottom line: If you want to help others, simply document your decision by adding your name to Michigan’s Donor Registry. Then let medical experts decide if you can help when it’s time.

Go to golm.org/register to add your name to the Donor Registry.

Out and about with Gift of Life

Gift of Life has extensive statewide outreach programs to educate and motivate residents to add their names to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry. We educate students and partner with hospitals, places of worship, colleges and universities, companies, sporting franchises and community groups to grow the Donor Registry.

We also host events to celebrate our champions, educate communities, and thank donors and their families for their precious gifts. Learn how you can get involved at golm.org.

Run Detroit members wearing their runner medals at the finish line at LIFE Walk/Run 2023
Young boy tries on a pair of glasses that mimic the need for a cornea transplant
Hartley, the Gift of Life Michigan mascot, gives a high five to a member of Bobby's Rockers at the finish line at LIFE Walk/Run 2023.
A large crowd gathered on the Michigan Capitol steps (including mascot Hartley T. Heart) holding Donate Life flags and banners for donor families, living donors, transplant recipients and those waiting to live.
A woman squats to admire a photo in the Circle of Life Garden at LIFE Walk/Run 2023
Eric Zane invites guests to Check Your Heart by holding up his driver's license with the red heart symbol on it.
Gift of Life's President & CEO Dorrie Dils greets Deb Wyant and young Ollie on the Capitol steps. Ollie is holding a stuffed Hartley doll.
Families exploring the Celebration of Life Trail at the John Ball Zoo

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