This year, Donate Life California and the California Department of Motor Vehicles celebrate a six-year partnership, which has resulted in more than 9 million Californians registering as organ and tissue donors through the state’s Donate Life California Organ and Tissue Donor Registry.
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Georgetown resident and recipient Janet Bales is a miracle story she would like to share.
“A little over a year ago, I was told that I had less than 24 hours to live,” said Bales, who received both a liver and kidney through Donate Life California. “I was on 24-hour dialysis, had received over six blood transfusions, and had to get my lungs and abdominal drained of accumulating fluid on a weekly basis due to water retention.”
Bales, who was a very active member of the local community for many years organizing fundraisers for people in need and activities such as Sober Graduation, had been diagnosed with end-stage or Stage 4 liver disease.
She did not meet her insurance company’s qualifications for a transplant, and said she felt like she had been stamped with a big reject symbol. She said she began planning her funeral.
Her complete journey began in 2009 when Bales said she became very ill with pancreatitis.
“During that time I was on hospice three different times, and in and out of the hospital every other week,” she said. “I had a difficult time trying not to give up toward the end. My husband saved my life.”
Referring to Alan, Bales’ spouse and companion for more than 30 years, she said he never gave up on her, encouraging her to continue living for their children and grandchildren. Alan is a self-employed cabinetmaker.
“Less than two years later, when I was in the hospital in San Francisco saying my last goodbyes to my family, we got the news that an organ donor became available,” said Bales. “On Jan. 5, 2011, I received a liver and kidney transplant. Having less than 24 hours to live, I chose to accept a ‘compromised’ liver and kidney; ‘beggars can’t be choosers.’”
Now, considering herself on her “second life,” Bales acts as an ambassador for Donate Life California, promoting its purpose to get people to sign up on its registry and become organ and tissue donors.
The online Donate Life California registry was created by four non-profit organ procurement organizations through legislation signed in 2003. Those organizations are California Transplant Donor Network, Golden State Donor Services, Life Sharing and OneLegacy.
Bales was at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco when she went from number 3001 to number 1 on the recipient list for her transplant.
“I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time,” she said, also referring to a great deal of praying. “I thought I had lived my purpose in life; now, I’ve found another purpose — promote awareness for donating your organs.”
Referring to it as “a rigid process” in becoming a recipient, becoming a donor is much easier. The partnership between Donate Life California and the DMV has made the process even more accessible, as more than 7,000 DMV customers per day check the “yes” box on their DMV forms to register.
California has the largest registry in the nation, with more than 9 million people. The state, however, also has the largest waiting list — 19,000 — with one in five people on the national waiting list living in California. Nationally, there are 92,000 people waiting to receive life-saving donations.
Throughout the United States, 18 people die each day waiting to receive a transplant — that’s 6,000 people who die each year waiting. One donor can save up to eight lives with organs, and an additional 50 people can be saved from that same donor’s tissue.
Typically, organs, which can be donated and received, are kidneys, liver, lungs pancreas, small intestines and heart. Tissues that can be donated and received include skin, bone, heart valves, tendons, veins and corneas. Other tissue not suited for transplant can be donated and used for research purposes. Even pacemakers can be donated to a veterinarian clinic to save an animal’s life.
There is no age limit for donors, and having had cancer is not exclusionary for donors; it can, however, be a deterring factor for recipients.
“What held me up most of all was that I have melanoma on my finger,” said Bales. “They won’t touch you if you have other serious illnesses.”
Recipient priority depends on scientific and medical factors, according to the Donate Life California Website. Those factors include the urgency of need, length of time waiting, and blood type and organ size compatibility. Race, gender, sex, income or celebrity status are not considered, but many myths exist surrounding the issue of being a donor or recipient.
“I am on my second life now,” said Bales. “My family and I would like to extend our sincere appreciation to this community for their emotional and spiritual support. Thank you also for those who contributed to my medical fund with your financial support. I was able to be housed in an apartment near the hospital during my recovery for seven weeks after my transplant, per hospital orders.
“The greatest hero I never met was the organ donor that saved my life,” she said. “Someone died and gifted me my life. My new motto is ‘live to give.’ Thank you doesn’t even begin to express my gratitude.”
Bales is a living example to the benefit and purpose of becoming an organ and tissue donor. For more information, visit the Donate Life Website at donatelife.net.
As Bales was gifted her life from a donor, local residents can now rejoice in the fact that Bales is back — as a “gift” to the community.