LEXINGTON, Ky. — Forty years ago, Perry County native Jim Halcomb received the gift of life in the form of a new kidney from an anonymous organ donor.
Halcomb, who was only 20 years old at the time, suffered from severe kidney disease and required dialysis three times a week, eight hours at a time. After his transplant at UK, his health improved, and he moved on with his life, serving as a police officer for more than 25 years.
Because of the rules and regulations surrounding organ donation at the time of his transplant, he never knew that he could contact the family of his organ donor to express his appreciation. But that changed last month, when Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) and UK HealthCare facilitated communications between Halcomb and his donor’s family.
With the encouragement of Donna Slone, the client services coordinator for KODA at UK HealthCare, Halcomb wrote the donor family a letter, thanking them all for their sacrifice.
“It was very difficult to write,” Halcomb said. “A lot of emotions, a lot of time had passed. But Donna just said, ‘Speak from the heart.’”
On Saturday, Halcomb was one of several featured speakers at UK HealthCare and KODA’s annual Gift of Life Memorial Celebration in UK Chandler Hospital Pavilion A. Representing those who have received the gift of life, Halcomb read his letter out loud.
“I’m a very private person, and I used to never speak about my transplant because I didn’t want special attention or favors,” said Halcomb, who participated in a “Body Mapping” workshop with other transplant recipients earlier this year and inspired him to start sharing his story. “A year ago, I couldn’t have done it. But it means the world to me to be able to read the letter this year.”
UK HealthCare and KODA first unveiled the memorial wall last year, with 240 individuals honored and more than 500 donor family members and guests in attendance for the inaugural celebration. Moving forward, the wall will be updated each year to honor both new donors and those who donated in years past.
“Creating a lasting tribute to those who have given hope and new life through donation has been a dream of UK and KODA for many years,” said Slone. “There have been nearly 1,000 donors at UK since transplantation began here in 1964. Some have chosen to remain anonymous, but we hope other families of UK donors that we did not reach this year will see the Gift of Life wall and allow us to add those names in the future.”
This year, the names of 40 individuals who provided the gift of life through organ and tissue donation were read aloud during the official ceremony and unveiled on the Gift of Life wall, located inside Pavilion A adjacent to the Gill Heart Institute.
Tricia Ricketts, whose 25-year-old son Ryan was an organ donor in 2008, spoke on behalf of the organ donor families.
“It helps me to be able to speak about Ryan and share his history,” Ricketts said. “It helps me keep his memory alive.”
The ceremony also featured a vocal performance by KODA Client Services Coordinator Diana Thacker, as well as remarks from UK HealthCare's Chief Administrative Officer Ann Smith and Dr. Andrew Bernard, UK's director of trauma and acute care surgery. Bernard, also the chair of the Donation and Transplantation Action Council, emphasized the importance of organ donation in Kentucky and beyond.
“UK HealthCare is both a major trauma center and a transplant center, so we see each day how donation and transplantation touch the lives of fellow Kentuckians in very remarkable ways,” Bernard said. “Each donor family’s generosity and their loved one’s gifts are represented in the more than 28,000 lives saved each year in the United States through transplantation.”
Every year, an estimated 6,000 people die while waiting for an organ transplant. More than 119,000 Americans are currently waiting for donated organs, including 900 people in Kentucky. Their names are on the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) waiting list. The level of necessity, blood type, and size are among several criteria that determine who can receive a donated organ. One individual donor can provide organs and tissue for nearly 50 people in need.
Ricketts, who was unable to attend the memorial service last year due to illness, got to see her son’s name immortalized on the wall this weekend. She has met two of her son’s organ recipients – a kidney patient and a double-lung patient, and says she considers them part of her family now. As a member of the Family Counsel for KODA, she makes it her duty to speak and spread the word about organ donation and KODA when she can.
“I think KODA is a top-notch organization – you see so much compassion and professionalism, and they are so supportive,” Ricketts said. “And I think this donor wall at UK is really something special.”
Although hospitals are obligated by law to identify potential donors and allow the organ donor procurement program to inform families of their right to donate, anyone can sign up to become an organ donor by joining the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry. The registry is a safe and secure electronic database where a person’s wishes regarding donation will be carried out as requested.