Maureen Fleagle finds solace in the knowledge that her son has given someone else a second chance at life.
Her son, Brian James Fleagle, was only 17 when he died due to a drug addiction on Dec. 11, 2002. Fleagle describes him as being “a great kid” who was athletic, had a great sense of humor and loved family activities.
When Fleagle and her husband were approached about donating Brian’s organs after he was declared brain dead, they didn’t hesitate.
“My husband and I stood there and without even looking at each other, said ‘yes.’ If his death could free someone else to live a longer life, yes we will,” she said.
Brian’s heart, kidneys and liver were harvested and given to those waiting for organs. A few weeks later, the Fleagles received a letter from the Gift of Life Donor Program informing them about the recipients of Brian’s organs. Fleagle kept feeling the urge to contact the recipient of Brian’s heart — a 47-year-old man named B.J. who hailed from Scranton.
“I just wanted to tell him everything about Brian — what his favorite foods were and what kind of sports he was involved in, what kind of things he liked in school and what his family was like,” she said.
Fleagle wrote a letter to B.J., and six months later she received a response from him, his mother and his girlfriend. When the Fleagles met their son’s heart recipient for the first time, it was a very moving experience.
“It was the most incredible experience that I could ever explain — to be able to be in the room with a man whose life has meaning. He’s going on with his life, and it’s because of my son’s heart,” says Flegale.
These days, the Fleagles and B.J. correspond frequently and visit each other twice a year.
“It has been a very healing, humbling experience for me to be able to be a part of this whole process,” Fleagle said.
She shared her story during an educational session hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Gift of Life Donor Program. During the “Power of Giving: Organ and Tissue Donation” learning session, ministry leaders were briefed on the organ donation process and encouraged to spread the message about the need for donors to their congregations.
The move to get the faith-based community involved comes at a time when there is a growing need for more organ donors — particularly from the minority community.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 112,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Approximately 19 people die every day while waiting for a life-saving organ. More than 6,500 people are waiting for organs in Pennsylvania.
During the session, Amy Craig Martiner, Gift of Life Hospital Services Coordinator, gave an overview of how the organ donation process works. As the region’s organ procurement organization, Gift of Life works with 130 hospitals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware to make organ donation an option for families.
The process starts when Gift of Life is contacted by the hospital about a patient with a poor prognosis who could be a potential donor. Gift of Life personnel are charged with approaching the families of potential donors to obtain their consent.
Martiner said there are two main types of organ donors — those who have been declared brain dead and people who have died from cardiac death.
She noted that HIV and cancer are the only health conditions that could exempt someone from being a potential organ donor.
Martiner said people have many wrong ideas about organ donation - such as concerns that medical personnel won’t save their lives because they are registered organ donors; the process goes against religious beliefs, or the donor’s body would be disfigured.
Vanessa Duvert, Gift of Life multicultural outreach coordinator, spoke about the need for people from the minority communities to become organ donors. She addressed the link between the high rates of diabetes and kidney disease in the African-American community and the high percentage of Blacks on the waiting list for a kidney. Duvert noted that African Americans represent 44 percent of those who are waiting for a kidney in the Pennsylvania region.
“There is higher rate of success when someone from the multicultural community receives an organ from someone in that community, this is because there are genetic similarities that will make it an easier process for a person’s body to accept that foreign object coming into it,” said Duvert.
“In simpler terms, an African-American organ is going to be a better match for an African-American patient.”
Heart transplant recipient Janet Dennis shared the impact that having a new organ has made on her life. Six years ago, Dennis underwent a transplant after a virus caused heart failure
After receiving the heart transplant and undergoing rehab, Dennis turned to swimming for her physical exercise. This would eventually lead her to become a competitor in the U.S. Transplant Games, Olympic-style competitions for people who have undergone organ transplants. She’s amazed at becoming an athlete in her 50s. She’s netted a number of medals for dragon boat racing, swimming and javelin throwing.
Dennis, 56, has given the medals that she won from the Transplant Games to her donor family.
“Giving my medals to my donor family is so small in comparison to what they have given me. My gold medal is sitting inside of my chest,” says Dennis.
Dennis, who is a social worker, leads a very active lifestyle, which includes volunteering with the Gift of Life, being a spokesperson for Women’s Heart and participating on a local dragon boat racing team.
“I am having the time of my life, and I owe it all to Jesus Christ and my donor family,” she says.
Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor, Enon Baptist Tabernacle Baptist Church, told the clergy leaders that they are in the position to encourage others to become donors.
“As a pastor, I believe that we have the greatest opportunity to address the issues of stigma and mythology as it relates to this issue of organ donation, but I think it comes from us creating some things — a good conversation about being healthy communities of giving overall,” said Waller.
“So that giving an organ is just another side of giving, because you also give money, because you also give time, because you also give talent.”
The Gift of Life encourages faith-based leaders to tap into its “It’s About Life” grant program. Through the program, grants are awarded in amounts of up to $2,000 to local, tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations and houses of worship that are committed to developing educational programs designed to increase education and donor designations of organ and tissue donation.
Faith-based institutions can plan events such as donor registration drives, donor education workshops, health fairs or organize a candle lighting ceremony to honor donors, donor families and recipients.
People can sign up to become registered organ donors when receiving or renewing their driver’s license at Pennsylvania driver’s license and photo centers.