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Are You Registered | By Dr. Lenny Salzberg


Paper vs. plastic, a tiny triangle on the bottom of a milk jug, a blue bin – these are the symbols of recycling — not small intestines or bones. But organ and tissue donation are ways that people to continue to help others, even after their deaths. A small red heart is placed on the driver’s licenses of registered donors in North Carolina. More than 3,000 people in United States are waiting to receive a donated heart and not everyone will get one. That makes Chuck Steffen one of the lucky ones. Most people know Steffen as Fayetteville’s Gutter Man, but In 1995, the Gutter Man received a five-vessel coronary bypass operation. The operation was a success and Steffen was well for two years, then the pain came back. Two surgeons told him that he needed a new heart. In 1998, Steffen went on the waiting list for a donation. Two years later, he was still waiting and too sick to stay home, so he moved into the transplant ward at Duke Medical Center to wait. There, the Gutter Man tried to make the best of his circumstances. Everyone on the ward decorated their IV pole, Steffen, an avid deer hunter, said. “I had a deer skull on mine,” he said. Then, when his phone rang one night at midnight, he didn’t even need to pick it up – he knew it meant he was getting a new heart. Though having a new heart means that Steffen will take immunosuppressant medications for the rest of his life and that his health is compromised in other ways, Steffen is grateful for the gift he has received. Even before his transplant, the Gutter Man had a little red heart on his driver’s license. Now that heart really means something to him. Judi McCartney talked to her children, Jacob DeGarmo and his twin sister Amanda, about organ donation when the kids took driver’s education. Now McCartney talks to students in Cumberland County’s driver’s education classes about organ donation and the ways it changed her family. Nine days before his 20th birthday, Jacob was in his pickup truck driving down a country road to a friend’s house. The road was slick, and the truck hydroplaned. It went down a culvert and broadsided a tree. Jacob was killed instantly. While making funeral arrangements, Judi was contacted by Carolina Donor Services, the federally-designated organ procurement organization for most of North Carolina. They wanted to know if she would like Jacob’s tissues donated. Jacob’s heart stopped when he was killed, so he couldn’t donate his organs, but he could still potentially donate his corneas, long bones, veins, tendons and skin. McCartney said yes. Now, she volunteers for Carolina Donor Services. She and Amanda recently attended the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games in Wisconsin. All of the athletes are organ transplant recipients. “I want Jacob’s life to have some meaning,” McCartney says. “I tell my students I don’t throw my pop bottles away, why would I throw away organs or tissues?” As for me, since meeting Chuck and Judi, I’ve registered as an organ donor. You can register to be a donor at www.donatelifenc.org. Dr. Lenny Salzberg teaches and sees patients at the Southern Regional AHEC Family Medicine Center.