Grueling time on dialysis ends with ultimate gift
Organ donor saves star high school athlete who then literally pays it forward to help donation programs
A young donor saved two things most important to Tristan Johnson: His life and his ability to play lacrosse.
Then the teen turned into a giver himself, helping pay for some of Gift of Life Michigan's crucial work to grow the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.
Both quality of life and lacrosse were in doubt when, as a freshman at Portage Northern High School, Tristan learned his kidneys were failing. Emergency dialysis at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital on Christmas Even in 2018 was the start of some difficult and frightening months ahead.
Get to know President & CEO Dorrie Dils
'People depend on us. Our work is a matter of life or death, so we cannot sit back.'
Dorrie Dils leads more than 350 people at Gift of Life Michigan. Her experience in donation dates back more than 30 years when, as a young nurse and donation coordinator, she helped families navigate the donation process.
For this publication, Dorrie talked about her work as a leader of the country’s 10th largest organ procurement organization, and the state of donation in Michigan today.
LifeLINES: Can you talk about what’s working and what organ and tissue donation means to you?
Dorrie Dils: I really feel like my career and life’s work has been in humble service. I do it because I want to work in an industry that has purpose. I try to instill that in others here, and I want them to have that same sense of urgency.
When I first started in this field, a woman gave me a picture of her 3-year-old son, who was waiting for a liver transplant. She told me to put it on my bulletin board. She said, “Every day when you come to work, ask yourself what you’re doing for my son.” I did think about him every single day and I still have his photo. He got a transplant and he’s probably 30-something years old now.
People depend on us.
Our work is a matter of life or death, so we cannot sit back — because people are dying on the waiting list.
LifeLINES: What is going well with donation right now?
Dorrie: A record number of people in Michigan donated organs in 2022 for the ninth consecutive year. We’re asking more families and they’re saying yes.
We also helped a record number of donors give tissue last year. We didn’t just break that record; we exceeded the last record in 2019 by 14%. People are helping more people year after year.
LifeLINES: What is the greatest challenge for Gift of Life?
Dorrie: We’re breaking donation records, but the number of organs transplanted was slightly lower last year. We will always have some organs that, after recovery, we discover aren’t functioning well enough to be transplanted.
But there are other reasons: The national allocation process is lengthy and cumbersome, and it sometimes results in an organ not being used. Our primary focus this year is resolving some issues to make sure more gifts from donors and their families are transplanted. Hopefully, we can partner with transplant centers and hospitals to make that happen.
LifeLINES: The Michigan Organ Donor Registry is growing at its slowest pace in years. What’s happening?
Dorrie: The biggest hurdle we have is when the potential donor isn’t registered. That’s when we sit down with the family, and, oftentimes, they don’t know what their loved one would want — and they say no. If the potential donor is registered, donation moves forward. So, we spend a lot of time on the Donor Registry — it’s really important.
Our problem is that the Secretary of State — where 95% of all registrations originate — has made some changes. We now can take care of our tabs and other business online, and we can do it less often. I’m happy about that as a resident — we all benefit. But it has minimized the number of times the question about joining the Donor Registry is asked. That has significantly impacted our work.
LifeLINES: What is Gift of Life doing about it?
Dorrie: We are pivoting to reach Michigan residents in other ways.
We’re investing a lot of time and energy into workplace partnerships (see Page 5).
We’re working with companies and hospitals that are large employers. They’re sharing the Donor Registry link with employees by email.
We’re also excited that the DNR provides a link to the Donor Registry after online purchases of hunting and fishing licenses. Legislation is in the works to add the registration question to Michigan income tax forms. We believe that, if passed, Michigan would be the first in the nation to offer the opportunity to register this way.
LifeLINES: What does donation mean to families and what do you see as the future of the waiting list?
Dorrie: I’ve met hundreds of donor families who — down the road — have a part of the story from their loved one’s death that most people never get. That becomes tremendously meaningful to them.
So, when we face barriers to donation, I feel confident in pushing because if we chose not to talk to that family, we’ve made a decision for them that they might later regret. We shouldn’t be making those decisions — families should.
I do see a day — and I hope it’s during my career — that people don’t die waiting for a transplant. The list will always be there, but I think at some point people won’t linger and die. That’s a travesty. There’s no reason someone should wait as long as some people do. Especially Brown or Black people, who wait particularly long.
I’m very proud of the work we’re doing for families and for those patients, and at the end of the day we get to say, “Something I did today made a difference.”
Proposed state bills would educate and register more donors
Patrick Wells-O’Brien spends a lot of time generating innovative ideas about how to add thousands of names to the state’s Organ Donor Registry. It’s the number one goal for his 23-person division and he takes his leadership responsibility very seriously.
Gift of Life Michigan has made significant inroads legislatively since Patrick joined the organization more than two years ago. The organization’s VP of communications and external relations talks here about what’s on the horizon legislatively, and why new bills will save lives.
Nick Olden has one job and it’s pivotal: He finds ways for non-transplantable donated tissue and organs to help humanity through research. Gift of Life Michigan’s research coordinator and the clinical teams working alongside him […]
Volunteer wants to help transplant families with House of Hope for extended stays in Detroit Aarolyn McCullough was inspired by one simple question: “Where can I buy groceries?” Aarolyn was volunteering to spend time with families at Henry Ford Transplant […]
Unique partnership has the potential to improve millions of lives The families of donors in Michigan are saying yes to research that could lead to breakthroughs in crippling diseases […]
Placenta donation offers super-healing powers to patients in need
Moms and babies are helping heal painful open wounds with generous gifts of “miracle tissue”
Little Coleton Voss has no idea how many people he’s already helped in his young life. But with the gift of his nutrient-rich placenta, he has already made a difference for up to 20 patients.
The Fenton-area toddler and his mom, Alyssa, donated his placenta the moment he was born in Ann Arbor 3 1/2 years ago. They were the first to give the tissue with super-healing powers as part of Gift of Life’s placenta donation program, which launched in 2019.
Gift of Life recognizes champions of organ, eye and tissue donation
Gift of Life is grateful to leaders in our community who champion our mission of honoring life through donation.
Later this month the organization will present Gift of Life Champion Awards to 21 people or organizations in Michigan for their extraordinary efforts to promote donation in their communities and make it happen at hospitals.
Don’t let misinformation affect your decision to sign up as a donor to help others!
False: Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of registered organ donors.
Fact: If you are sick or injured, the first priority of your hospital care team is to save your life. Organ donation is only considered when all efforts to save a patient have been exhausted.
False: I am too sick to be a donor.
Fact: Don’t rule yourself out. A patient with diabetes might not qualify to donate kidneys, but could have healthy lungs or a strong heart. Donors with HIV can donate to patients with HIV. Medical teams decide which organs and tissues are suitable for transplant.
False: I can’t be a donor if I’ve had COVID-19.
Fact: Patients who have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19 can still donate organs and tissue. Even lungs that were infected might still be suitable for transplant if the donor was asymptomatic at the time of donation. Again, don’t rule yourself out.
False: My religion prohibits organ and tissue donation.
Fact: Most major religions support organ and tissue donation and consider it a final act of charity and love. If in doubt, ask your spiritual or religious leader.
False: I’m too old to be an organ or tissue donor.
Fact: There is no age limit for organ donation. Many donors older than 50 — and some in their 80s — have saved lives. Last year, Gift of Life Michigan helped a 101-year-old woman become a tissue donor. Your medical condition at the time of death will determine whether your organs are healthy enough to help another person.
False: I can’t have an open-casket viewing if I donate my tissue and/or organs.
Fact: Donation need not interfere with funeral plans. The donor’s body is treated with the utmost respect. Gift of Life has relationships with funeral homes across Michigan.
False: I can only sign up to donate when getting or renewing my driver’s license.
Fact: You can sign up at any time through a Secretary of State branch office, its website at Michigan.gov/OrganDonation or the Gift of Life website, golm.org/register. It only takes five minutes to save a life, so Check Your Heart and add your name to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry today.
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.