Organ recipient and ‘donor mom’ keep message alive

Robin Mitchell of Centennial keeps this collage of photos as a tribute to her son Joe and five of his seven organ recipients.

Recycling life

By Peter Jones

Robin Mitchell and Janet Rost have very different stories, but both lives were touched by the modern miracle of organ donation.

Mitchell, a Centennial resident, lost her 22-year-old son Joe to a fatal seizure in 2008, but his decision to become an organ, eye and tissue donor has saved the lives of five men and restored the sight of two others.

Rost was given at least two second chances at life after she received a life-saving liver transplant this year. The Greenwood Village woman’s own liver had been ravaged by hepatitis C, a disease she had contracted more than 30 years earlier from a blood transfusion she received after a near-fatal car crash.

The two stories are among the many that complete the ongoing circle of organ-donation. Andrea Smith, spokeswoman for Donor Alliance, the federally designated nonprofit organ-procurement organization for Colorado and Wyoming, says organ donation touches thousands of lives and has sometimes created new “families” of recipients and the grieving loved ones of their donors.

“It brings healing to the recipients, and of course and they’re very thankful, but we also have many, many donor families that receive healing from the process and really become advocates for the organ-donation process,” she said.

In the Colorado and Wyoming, more than 2,000 people are currently waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. The good news is Colorado has one of the nation’s highest-performing donor registries with nearly 67 percent of driver’s license applicants on the register. Last year, Donor Alliance recovered organs from 134 donors and tissue from 966 donors.

“One single donor can save and enhance more than 100 lives,” Smith said. “They can donate eight organs and a number of different tissues – bone, ligament, corneas.”

Registering is as simple as checking a box on one’s driver’s license application or signing up at Donor Alliance encourages everyone to register – noting that some people falsely assume that they would be disqualified due to their medical condition or age.

Eighteen people on the national waiting list die every day.

“We’ve had a donor in Colorado as old as 87 and nationally the oldest they’ve had is 92,” Smith said. “There are medical rule-outs for organs, but we really encourage people to let the medical professionals make those decisions.”

Rost and Mitchell are thankful for the process, which has brought renewed life to one and personal healing and new friendships to the other. The Villager recently asked them to share their experiences.

Janet Rost and Robin Mitchell share a common bond in organ donation. Rost’s life was saved by a liver transplant. Mitchell’s son, Joe, donated his organs and tissues, saving the lives of five people and restoring the eyesight of two others.
Photo by Peter Jones

Villager: Robin, Joe was 15 years old when he decided to become a donor. How did that come up in conversation?

Mitchell: They asked when he got his driver’s permit. I don’t think we sat down and had a conversation about it, but all my kids did it when they turned 15. I told him it was his decision and he wanted to do it. He wanted to help people.

Villager: Seven people were helped as a result?

Mitchell: John, double lung. Ken, heart. Both kidneys, liver and two corneas. I know five of the seven. I correspond with five and know two personally. I just went to Nebraska to see Ken. It’s like we’re family. John came to our family reunion this year. John and Joe would have gotten along. They were both sports people. The heart recipient’s wife and the lung recipient’s wife met in the hall at University Hospital and were talking and didn’t know [about their common donor] at the time.

Villager: Is it a little surreal when you talk with these people, knowing part of your son’s body is keeping them alive?

Mitchell: At first it was, but now both of them let me touch them.

Villager: Do you feel like Joe is living on through them?

Mitchell: Oh, yes. It was a lifesaver for me and my family. It’s something I can talk about with them.

Villager: Has it helped the healing process?

Mitchell: Absolutely. Death is reality, but I think young kids that haven’t had a chance is senseless to me, so at least something good came out of it.

Villager: What’s your message to the public?

Mitchell: [The recipients] tell me everyday that Joe’s their hero. So everybody has the potential to be a hero at sometime.

Villager: Janet, you come at this from the other angle.

Rost: I was pronounced dead twice. I came back and I woke up three days later from a coma. They replaced half my blood, but my blood had hepatitis C, which ate my liver. Out of a scale of 1 to 4 – 4 being the worse – I was a 4. A year ago, I went into end-stage liver disease. I was in total denial that I couldn’t fix this myself. I had a son who was now 26 and I just want see him grow up and have a family. My doctor said, “Do your bucket list.” But physically, I couldn’t do anything.

Villager: Then you became a transplant candidate.

Rost: I took really good care of myself – my heart, everything was perfect, except for my liver. So they put me on the list. The doctor told me I would have it by the end of July. They said the summertime is the best time to get organs because of all the motorcycle accidents. They call them “donor cycles.”

Villager: How is your new liver doing?

Rost: I feel better than I did when I was 30. I’ll be 60 next summer.

Villager: Do you know who your donor was?

Rost: All I know about her is that she was 60 years old and from Colorado. Every morning I wake up and I think of her. I’m sad that her family had to go through whatever pain it was because she was a similar age to me. I honor her life everyday. I am so thankful that I’ve had another chance.

Villager: How has this experience changed you?

Rost: My whole life I’ve thought that I was pretty invincible. I’ve learned it’s bigger than me. I’m a lucky person. The conversation I had 30 years ago [during a near-death experience after the car accident] with my angel or whoever it was, said, “You can’t give up. You’re not finished.” And I’m not finished yet. When my son was 5, we were in Munich and I stepped in front of a streetcar and got hit. I looked at that conductor’s eyes and thought, “This is it.” But I bounced off the street and walked home eight blocks.

Villager: What’s the lesson in all this?

Mitchell: You never know how many people you can save. Some people say, “I’m too old” or “I take anti-seizure medication.” Well, so did my son and look how many people he saved. So just register.

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