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The gift of life
Organ donation has forever changed the lives of two Statesboro women
Kristine Yager-Rushton received a kidney and pancreas transplant 11 years ago and is now a motorcycle enthusiast. She has become involved with LifeLink of Georgia in helping efforts to increase awareness about the need for organ donors. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

   For Susan Puckett, the gift of life her son gave after his tragic death has kept more than just his memory alive.
      For Kris Rushton, the gift of life she received forever changed the quality of her own life and made her eternally grateful to a stranger who chose to become an organ donor before his own tragic death.
      The two Statesboro women now are dedicating themselves to LifeLink of Georgia, a non-profit agency that offers education as to why people should become organ donors and also facilitates the entire transplant process.
      “Being involved with LifeLink is, for me, like therapy,” Puckett said. “I feel like it keeps part of my son alive. Volunteering with LifeLink, talking with people, making them aware of why becoming an organ donor is such a selfless and vital decision. It’s something I have to do.”
      Puckett and Rushton have been particularly busy this month because April is National Donate Life Month. Donate Life Month is dedicated to people who helped save lives by being organ donors, people who have registered as organ donors and to educate and encourage everyone to become an organ, tissue or marrow donor.
      Rushton started getting more involved with LifeLink in January when she attended some work sessions at the agency’s office in Augusta. Rushton moved with her husband Ed to Statesboro when he accepted a job at Georgia Southern’s Betty Foy Sanders School of Art two years ago.
      When she was 29, 11 years ago, Rushton underwent transplant surgery for both a kidney and pancreas. She said her pancreas was not producing enough insulin and she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 6 years old. As is common for the disease, it began affecting some of her organs and she started experiencing mild bouts of kidney failure when she was 23.
      “Speaking with doctors, they told me at some point I would need a kidney transplant, but I always thought that would be after I was 40,” Rushton said.
      When she was 29, however, her kidneys were getting worse and she began peritoneal dialysis. Less than two months later, she was placed on a transplant list.
      “I went on the list a few days before Thanksgiving and on the Sunday after I received a call at 9 p.m. that the transplant center at the University of Wisconsin had a likely match,” Rushton said.
      Rushton and her husband were living in La Crosse, Wisc., at the time, a two-and-a-half hour drive from the university hospital in Madison, Wisc.
      “By 8 a.m. they had determined the kidney and pancreas were a match and I was wheeled into surgery,” she said. “I was excited, scared, happy, but it all happened so quickly I didn’t have time to get too scared. My parents were in Florida at the time and they were terrified.”
      Eight hours of surgery later, Rushton had a new kidney and pancreas that were functioning as well as possible. The next day, doctors even made her get up and walk a little bit. Rushton stayed in the hospital for 10 days and left, she said, a much healthier person.
      “There were no complications and outside of some pain, which was well worth it, it’s hard to imagine how it could have gone more smoothly,” she said. “I started feeling better immediately; food was tasting better and my skin tone actually looked pink for once. And I felt perky. I wasn’t tired all the time.”
      Rushton said she will be on anti-rejection drugs, in low doses, the rest of her life, but the quality of her life was improved forever due to the kindness of a 17-year-old boy who decided he would be an organ donor before he died tragically from a head injury.
      Susan Puckett’s son Thomas also was 17 when a terrible accident took his life.
      In August 2008, he had finished his high school requirements and was joint-enrolled at Georgia Southern University throughout his senior year in high school. He was preparing to enroll at GSU at age 18 as a sophomore. On Aug. 12, Puckett was working at a construction site on the campus when a two-ton inverter slipped from a forklift and fell on him. He survived five days, and when doctors at Memorial Hospital in Savannah told his family brain death was imminent, they chose to give the gift of life to others.
      “Actually it was a decision Thomas made when he got his drivers license,” Puckett said. “His dad took him to the DMV office and when they asked him if he wanted to be an organ donor, he said, ‘Well, duh, they won’t do me any good.’ He joked about it, but he was serious.”
      When the doctors told the family that brain death was near, LifeLink of Georgia entered the picture. Puckett said she had never heard of the group before, but the family knew Thomas wanted to donate his organs, so LifeLink then assumed the medical care.
      Puckett said her son was given several drugs to help save his life and it took about 24 hours for the drugs to clear out of his system.
      “Two surgical teams were flown in from Emory University in Atlanta and harvested his organs,” Puckett said. “Prior to that, were allowed as much time as we wanted to say goodbye.”
      Puckett said Thomas’ decision to donate his organs has given her a sense that he lives on though his gift.
      She said his heart went to a 29-year-old man; his liver to a 62-year-old man; one of his kidneys to a 17-year-old girl and the other kidney and his pancreas to a mother of three, who also has six grandchildren.
      LifeLink and other transplant agencies do not tell donor families who the organ recipients are, nor do the recipients know the identity of their donor. The agencies, however, do allow both recipients and donor families to write letters and deliver them. It is then up to each to respond.
      Puckett said she has written letters to each of the recipients of her son’s organs, but she has only heard from the liver recipient.
      “He expressed his deep thanks and told us he thinks about Thomas every day,” Puckett said. “But I’ve been told and I understand how hard it must be to say thank you. They feel such guilt that they are alive due to your loss. Sometimes it can take four or five years before a recipient makes contact.”
      Rushton said she wrote a letter of sympathy and thanks to the family of her donor soon after she came home. She hasn’t heard anything in 11 years, but she remains hopeful that someday they will.
      For now, Puckett and Rushton want to do all they can to help LifeLink of Georgia register as many organ donors as possible.
      “As I said, I had never heard of LifeLink before, so I wanted to find out everything I could,” Puckett said. “It took me a few months to gather myself but I started to volunteer for the group more heavily after I attended a meeting in Waynesboro where the speaker was a heart transplant recipient.”
      The recipient was Sherrell Gay, who is the mother of Tracy Ide. Ide is the public affairs coordinator for the LifeLink office in Augusta and Puckett started working with her.
      “We don’t have many donor families who volunteer because for most the loss is too hard to talk about,” Ide said. “But Susan has been over-the-top great in helping us out.”
      Puckett has traveled with Ide to many schools in the area to talk about the importance of registering to be an organ donor.
      “When Susan talks about the death of her son, especially in the Bulloch schools, it gets really quiet,” Ide said. “I think that really hits home that a tragedy can happen to anyone at anytime.”
      But for Rushton and Puckett, the message of Lifelink and becoming an organ donor is one of hope.
      “Before I received my transplants, I was tired all the time and had little stamina,” Rushton said. “My husband was always into motorcycles, so after I started feeling better I wanted to get involved with motorcycles, too. I’m no daredevil, but I commute to work everyday now on a motorcycle and we enjoy riding together.
      “The transplant has improved my life in so many ways. I hope to carry that message to convince others to become organ donors.”
      Puckett, too, said she would be a strong advocate for LifeLink.
      “Becoming a donor is such an easy thing to do,” she said. “And it can have such a profound effect on so many lives.”

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