Brian Cape keeps his phone close, waiting for the call that could save his life.
The Anderson man is one of around 1,000 people in South Carolina on the organ donor waiting list, a list that is growing longer even as more people in South Carolina are donating organs.
Cape is waiting for a heart transplant. He has a left ventricle assist device, which helps pump his heart. He takes medicine and maintains a strict regimen of diet, exercise and doctor’s visits.
“I haven’t had anything with salt in it for years,” Cape said.
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Like all organ donor candidates, he needs to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. Most of those on the list, like Cape, will go to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, a four-hour trip.
They have to be ready to drop it all, pay for hotel stays for family and other costs. But a new organ means a new lease on life and it’s a hope that keeps him going, Cape said.
George Oliver is waiting for a pancreas. He was born with a damaged pancreas and it’s gotten critical in the last several years.
The Anderson man said he’s continuously losing weight; the food he eats is moved out of his body so fast that little of it is absorbed. Oliver sits in his house, waiting for his phone call and looking at pictures of when he used to race cars, just a few years ago.
He came close to getting a new organ around Christmas time, but got a second call and was told it wouldn’t happen.
So he waits.
Organ donation has come a long way in South Carolina in the past decade or so, said David DeStefano, president and chief executive officer of We Are Sharing Hope SC. The organization, which changed its name from Life Point this year, is the clearinghouse for organ donations in the state.
“Our role is to help along the gift of life,” DeStefano said.
Each organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people and another 75 to 100 people can benefit from a single person’s tissue donations, such as eye, heart valve and skin.
South Carolina residents used to be some of the least likely to donate organs. Until 2008, people who agreed to donate organs when they got their driver’s license were not entered into a database. The state now has 1.8 million people in a database for organ donation.
Kidneys are by far the most needed organs — about 90 percent of the people needing an organ in South Carolina are waiting for a kidney. Kidney/pancreas combinations are the next most common, followed by liver, intestines, heart and lungs.
The donations bring life to those who would die, said Kelly Patrick. The Athens, Georgia, resident donated one of her kidneys to a Starr woman, Jimmie Sue Evans Swilling, in 2013 after Swilling’s husband gained national notice for walking with a sign reading “Need kidney 4 wife” up and down Anderson’s Main Street.
Patrick said she has never regretted, not even for a moment, her decision to help Swilling, who died this week of complications due to Parkinson’s.
“The process is easier than you think,” she said. “Spiritually it reaffirms for me that there is a higher being.”
Jonathan Scott “Scotty” Worley, 12, died suddenly after contracting meningitis in 2005, said his mother, Jan Worley.
Shortly before he fell ill, Scotty had heard about organ donation, said Worley, now a West Union resident.
“He told his father, ‘If I’m dead and gone I wouldn’t need them anymore,’” Worley said.
When he died, Scotty’s family donated his lungs, two kidneys, his heart and his pancreas. The teenager who got his heart died after about two years, when she was in her early 20s, Worley said.
But even the gift of just a few years, a little bit more life, is precious, she said.
Through support groups, Worley talks with a lot of people who have lost children.
“It’s kind of like alien to people. If you have a child that’s your biggest fear,” Worley said. “If he were older and had children or had married and had a career you could think about that, but he was 12 and he never had any of that. This was kind of like his life’s work.”
She works as a nurse at a dialysis clinic in Spartanburg and sees people who need organs. She also sees former patients who have received transplants. They look like entirely new people.
All major religions support organ donation, DeStefano said. There are separate doctors who analyze patients for organ donation so there is no risk of doctors doing less to save a life if they need an organ for another patient, he said.
Celebrities and rich people don’t go to the front of the line, DeStefano said. Everyone gets on a list and there are factors – such as how critical the need is, a person’s weight and blood type – but wealth cannot be considered, he said.
Pelham Medlock came down with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver in 2005. He was given two years to live.
A former Homeland Park fire chief and fire investigator, Medlock said he was in so much pain that he and his wife had to sell a car to get a van so he could lie down.
“I couldn’t bear to sit up,” he said.
After three aborted attempts to get a transplant – once after being prepped for surgery – the fourth time was the charm.
“They had told me two years, I was at 18 months and, short of God’s intervention, I don’t believe I would’ve lived to the 24 months,” he said. “I felt that death was real close.”
The operation was a success and while his family had planned on a weeklong hospital stay and another 30 days in a Charleston motel nearby, he was back on the road to his Possum Kingdom home 10 days after the operation.
“When I went down to Charleston, I was on pain meds and laying in the back of a van,” Medlock said. “Ten days later I was riding in the front of the van, no pain meds and even the sun felt better. It was amazing how quick it turned. Just that one phone call will totally change your life, totally change you around.”
Patrick, who hasn’t missed her kidney, said it’s important to make sure family members know about organ donation plans. It’s not an easy conversation but it can help save lives, she said.
Cape knows someone’s death could mean that he gets a longer life.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But what if it was someone you loved? Wouldn’t you want to sign up?”
Medlock said he wants everyone to sign up as a donor.
“I have people say to me, “Well, I don’t want to be a donor,’” he said. “I tell them: Would you accept an organ? Would you allow one of your family members or your best friend to accept an organ? What if it would save their life? If you would, you need to really reconsider donating your organs.”
Life Point Inc. (now We Are Sharing Hope SC) is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing organ, eye and tissue donation in South Carolina for transplantation and research. Life Point is the government-certified Organ Procurement Organization (OPO) for organ recovery services in South Carolina (excepting Aiken and Edgefield counties) and provides organ, tissue and ocular donor services to 62 hospitals throughout the state. The organization offers professional education regarding organ and tissue donation to hospital staff members in order to maximize the quantity and quality of donations.