National Donate Life Month brings spotlight back to heartwarming transplant story

April is National Donate Life Month, a campaign that features local, regional and national events to encourage people to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate and honor those that have saved others through the gift of donation.

Did you know transplant candidates generally have better results when they receive organs from living donors as compared to organs from deceased donors? That’s why Aurora Health Care Foundation supports Aurora’s Living Donor Transplant program that helps to create more awareness and develop support groups for donors and recipients.

A story about a living donor that we told you about back in February in our Inspire magazine is getting attention again, after the people involved were featured on CBS 58.

A new lease on life

cover-pic-judy-and-jeff

Before the surgery, Judy and Jeff hardly knew each other. Now they’re like family.

The best gifts sometimes turn up in unexpected places. Like the dentist’s office.

That’s where Jeff Eckrich found his second chance at life. And it had nothing to do with his teeth. Jeff was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 35 and his kidney function got progressively worse as he got older. At 67, his doctors told him he would need a transplant or dialysis.

A close family friend tried to help, but didn’t turn out to be a good match. Jeff wasn’t sure what would happen next. That is, until he found himself telling his story to Judy Sommerfeld, the receptionist at his dentist’s office – a woman he talked to only twice a year.

“When I heard him say his family friend didn’t work out, I told Jeff, ‘Look, I’m serious, I want to help. I want to get tested,’” Judy said.

And so Judy, who hardly knew Jeff, and her husband, who had never even met him, got tested. Judy turned out to be a match.

The ‘pink Cadillac’ of organs

In November of 2015, both Jeff and Judy underwent transplant surgery at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, which has been a leader in transplant surgery since 1968. The procedures were a success.

“The surgeon who actually harvested the kidney came in and told my wife, ‘Jeff got a pink Cadillac. That organ was absolutely superlative,’” Jeff explained.

From strangers to close friends

Watch Jeff and Dr. Sahajpal in this interview from CBS 58.

Jeff and Judy’s families are now bonded for life.

Jeff tells CBS 58 News at 4 that they’ve become best of friends, enjoying meals at each other’s homes each week.
“I tried words, flowers, but I came to conclusion the best way to say thank you was to take the best care of this kidney that I could,” Jeff told CBS 58 News at 4.

“I just feel such joy because God blessed me with such good physical health, so I could be a blessing to someone else,” shared Judy. “I never thought I’d do something like this, but then again, I never knew I could.”

Thousands of people still need help

Approximately 120,000 people across the U.S. are waiting for new organs, according to Dr. Ajay Sahajpal, who performed Jeff’s surgery. He told CBS 58 living kidney donations often offer better outcomes to patients.

“The process is not very painful. We do it robotically. The donor has less pain and goes home within 48 hours of surgery. The harder part is when patients die on the waiting list. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Not everyone lucks out at their dental office like Jeff did. You can help to make sure more people like him find their “match”, by supporting the Living Donor Transplant Program. To make a gift, click here. If you’d like to learn more about this and other ways to support Aurora’s Transplant Program, contact Michelle Schuerman at Michelle.Schuerman@aurora.org.

For more information on Aurora St. Luke’s Transplant Center click here.

For more information on organ donation click here.

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