When it comes to organs, Philly is most generous

Weston Keeton is awaiting a heart and double-lung transplant at Children’s Hospital. family photo
Weston Keeton is awaiting a heart and double-lung transplant at Children’s Hospital. family photo
Posted: May 11, 2012

IT WAS ONE of those letters that made me throw my hands in the air.

“Please help my son get a kidney,” the woman wrote in shaky script. “I am elderly, and he takes care of me. He has bad kidney disease and is getting sicker. He needs a kidney.”

So, she asked: Could I find one for him?

I was about to call and tell her that some things are beyond the powers of even the most sympathetic reporter, but then a letter landed on my desk. It was from an inmate in a Pennsylvania prison, and he had a request.

“I would like to donate a kidney to someone in need,” he wrote. “Can you help me do that?”

Is it wrong to say that, if this hook-up works, I want a raise?

Of the many tasks readers have asked me to help them with (I once got a penniless dead woman buried, for example), I never imagined that procuring an organ might be among them.

Then again, I live in the Delaware Valley. Last year in this region, the generosity of 442 donors resulted in nearly 1,200 transplants — the largest volume anywhere in the United States. That works out to about 43 donors and 120 organs per million people here, compared with 26 donors and considerably fewer than 100 organs per million people everywhere else, including New York and Los Angeles.

The practice is so widespread in the Delaware Valley, it’s no wonder some folks think it can be handled via mail.

“We’re extremely generous with our organs,” says Howard Nathan, president and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program, which oversees local organ procurement and distribution. He credits his organization’s close ties with hospitals — the region teems with high-tech medical centers offering transplants — and its ongoing community outreach for the high number of transplants last year.

Still, it’s not high enough. About 6,500 people in the Philly area need organs. Many die while waiting for them.

Among those holding his own is 5-year-old Weston Keeton, who was born with heart defects and then developed pulmonary hypertension. He now needs a heart and double-lung transplant to survive. Weston, his parents and five brothers and sisters traveled to Philly from Tennessee in June for treatment. He has been at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia ever since.

His mom, Julie, has stayed with Weston in Philly while his dad, Adam, cares for the couple’s other children in Tennessee. Julie has found a home away from home at Gift of Life’s new Family House, a beautiful, hotel-like haven at 4th and Callowhill streets that offers low-cost lodging and support services to transplant patients and families who journey to Philly for care.

I met Julie at the Family House last Sunday, after Gift of Life’s formal dedication of the 30-room mansion, which opened last July. As Julie shared Weston’s story, she bounced her infant daughter, Ellie, on her shoulder. Julie was pregnant when she arrived in Philly last year and gave birth at Pennsylvania Hospital in January.

“This house is the only home Ellie has ever known,” said Julie. “I don’t know where we’d be without it.”

The only way Julie, Weston and Ellie can be reunited with family in Tennessee is if the unthinkable happens to the child of another family — a scenario that Julie finds hard to discuss without tearing up.

“We pray every day for organs for Weston,” says Julie. “But I couldn’t pray last Christmas. The thought of some other family losing their child on Christmas was too much. I couldn’t ask God to do that to any family.”

Of course, in the case of my elderly letter-writer and the prison inmate, no one would have to die for a transplant to occur, since living kidney donations now are routine.

When I asked Gift of Life’s Nathan how I should advise the inmate, he suggested that the man discuss his desire with the prison’s medical director. If the man isn’t attempting to use organ donation to, say, reduce his sentence (he is doing time for manslaughter), then perhaps formal medical testing can commence.

“I don’t want publicity or fame,” the inmate wrote in his letter to me. “I would just like to do something good with my life for someone who needs help.”

I admire his desire, and Lord knows we need more people to feel similarly moved.

I’ll keep you posted.

Contact Ronnie at polaner@phillynews.com or 215-854-2217. Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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