Sep 14, 2022 - News

Organ transplant milestone is personal for many

Illustration of a red cross multiplying into many red crosses.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The U.S. surpassed one million organ transplants last week.

  • Tennessee Donor Services executive director Jill Grandas tells Axios the moment followed a recent stretch of "milestone years" that saw the pace of transplants jump substantially.

Yes, but: The need for organ donors remains immense, with more people getting transplants than ever before, Axios' Shawna Chen reports.

  • More than 105,000 people are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants nationwide. About 3,000 are waiting in Tennessee, per TDS.
  • Roughly 17 a day die waiting, the Associated Press reports.

Meanwhile: The nation's transplant system is facing criticism for poor management and oversight.

Zoom in: Grandas says officials in Tennessee are implementing systemic improvements recommended in a national report.

What's next: Grandas says her team continues to push for more Tennesseans to join the 2.7 million residents currently registered as organ and tissue donors.

  • She says firsthand stories about "the miracle of organ donation and transplantation" are the most powerful tool in those efforts.
A mother with her daughter as a baby and then as a teenager.
Annie B. Williams with her daughter Olivia. Photos: courtesy of Annie B. Williams

Annie B. Williams is one of the people who can frame the nation's transplant milestone in profoundly personal terms.

Three weeks after her daughter Olivia was born, the Nashville native received shattering news.

  • She had battled liver disease all her life. But doctors discovered a new, lethal disease was targeting her liver. She could not survive without a transplant.

"My biggest fear was leaving my child without a mother, and particularly without a mother that she would remember," Williams tells Axios.

Williams' condition worsened over the next two years. By the time her name reached the top of the transplant list, she had written instructions guiding her loved ones to step up and care for her daughter.

Everything changed in December 2005.

  • An 18-year-old was killed in a motorcycle crash, and his family decided to donate his organs. His liver went to Williams.

After the surgery, she looked in the mirror and saw herself healthy for the first time she could remember. Her jaundiced skin had cleared, and her yellowed eyes were white.

"I just started crying. I sat in the hallway and I just cried out of gratitude, out of pain for his family and out of a deep humility that I had to make the best use of this gift.

Olivia turned 18 last November. Williams has dedicated much of her energy to helping others like her get the chance to watch their children grow up, too.

  • She began teaching at Montgomery Bell Academy after her transplant and has woven the cause into her work at the all-boys prep school: Williams and her students partner with TDS to raise awareness and register more donors.
  • She sees that part of her work as a responsibility she inherited when she received her new liver.

"There are a million people who have gotten to be at the family dinner table, who have gotten to sing in the church choir, who have gotten to volunteer at the soup kitchen," Williams said.

  • "To be one of a million who have had that opportunity is pretty humbling and awe-inspiring."
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