Betsy Niles loved life and gave great presents. The biggest gift she ended up giving was that of life when she died suddenly and her organs were donated to save others.
Dan Sarnowski (left), and Ali Niles (right) pose with Valentine Samuels (center). Samuels was the recipient of one of Betsy Niles' kidneys.
By Laurie Gordon
SPARTA — Dan Sarnowski, of Sparta, recently received the Chairman’s Award for his exceptional commitment as a member of the NJ Sharing Network Foundation Board of Trustees. Sarnowski is the chair of the NJ Sharing Network's Annual 5K Celebration of Life steering committee, a member of the Donor Family Council and helps run the Betsy Niles Scholarship Fund. His dedication to the NJ Sharing Network is uncanny and it's all in the name of the love of his life: a woman named Betsy Niles.
Betsy and Dan
“Betsy and I actually were proof that internet dating works (at least once).” Sarnowski said. “We met via Matchmaker.com in August 2001. We had a few dates that went okay and the more we met the more we learned that we liked the same things (salt water, sailing, hockey) and disliked the same things (golf, tennis) and we became committed to each other.” Sarnowski said they discussed getting married but decided, “why ruin a good thing” He added, “We often referred to each other as “BTH” and “BTW” (better than a husband, better than a wife). We had a fully committed relationship for 10 years and those years were the best years of my life.”
On March 30, 2011, Niles was walking to the train station in Upper Montclair where they lived together. It was just a three block walk to catch the train into Manhattan where she was working. She was crossing an entrance into the parking lot for the train station when she was struck by a van pulling into that lot. The driver of the van had been driving East on Bellevue Ave and was blinded by the sun when he turned to pull into the lot.
“He never saw Betsy and she never saw him,” Sarnowski said, “ I often say five seconds one way or the other and it would have been just a close call but sadly she was struck and suffered major brain injury. She was taken to St Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson where they tried to save her life by conducting emergency brain surgery but they could not undo the major damage that was done. Betsy was placed on life support in the ICU awaiting family and friends who were arriving that day.”
Meeting an angel
Once Sarnowski and family and friends knew her prognosis was terminal, they were approached by an “angel” named Paula Gutierrez, a transplant coordinator from the NJ Sharing Network. Ali Niles, Betsy’s daughter, brought up the subject of organ donation, and Gutierrez worked with them for the next 24 hours in enabling Niles to become a donor.
Niles was removed from life support the next day – March 31, 2011 – and, with the help of Gutierrez and NJ Sharing Network, Sarnowski, Niles' sister Sally and adult children Pete and Ali were with Niles in the Operating Room when she passed away. “In that O.R. were the organ recovery surgeons who marked Betsy’s passing with a moment of silence to honor her memory and to honor the gifts that she was about to give as her last act on earth,” Sarnowski said. “That was an incredibly touching moment and would not have been possible had Betsy not become a donor.”
Niles donated two kidneys. One went to Valentine Samuels who successfully received her kidney the next day and who Ali Niles and Sarnowski met at the NJ Sharing Network in November 2015. The other kidney went to research. Niles' gifts of tissue donation have touched the lives of over three dozen people so far.
Sarnowski said that Niles had not been an organ donor. “She had not 'checked the box' on her driver’s license to become an organ donor. It was not that she was not willing to be an organ donor but like many of us she never thought about it and never took that step to check the box. However, Ali and I knew Betsy would be the first to say 'take everything you can' and, working with Paula at the hospital that day, Betsy did indeed become an organ and tissue donor.”
“We were so impressed by Paula, by the mission of the Sharing Network and so honored that Betsy could become a donor that we made the NJ Sharing Network our charity of choice 'in lieu of flowers' at Betsy’s wake and funeral,” Sarnowski said. In a few days after the funeral he said he contacted Sandy Erwin, who lives in Newton and who worked at the Sharing Network, to volunteer in any way he could. Sarnowski took the volunteer training in April 2011 and started his journey with them right away.
Ali Niles is a dedicated runner and she learned that NJ Sharing Network was going to have a 5K run in June of 2011 (that was the first year of NJSN’s 5K’s). “Ali and I started our team--Betsy’s Dash--very quickly and, in that first year we raised nearly $10,000 with over 80 of Betsy’s family and friends contributing,” Sarnowski said. “In that first 5K Ali won the women’s bracket, finishing first out of over 800 women running the race that day. I do not run but I do walk the 5K course every year.”
Since that first 5k in 2011, their team has been at every Annual NJ Sharing Network 5K and has raised nearly $90,000 to support NJSN. Sarnowski joined the 5K Steering Committee that first year and became chair of the committee in 2013.
The Donor Family Council
Sarnowski is also a member of the NJ Sharing Network's Donor Family Council.
“It is a rather unique group in that it consists of volunteer members whose loved ones have become organ/tissue donors over the years,” he said. “It is not a 'grief counseling group' but rather a forum to advise NJ Sharing Network on issues and practices from a donor family perspective.”
He added, “One early example: when we talked with Paula in the hospital about Betsy becoming a donor, one of the questions on the standard checklist was 'are you willing to donate your loved one’s eyes?' That was the one item Betsy’s two adult children balked at and they could not envision burying their mother without her eyes This was a discussion at one of the early meetings and several donor family members had the same reaction when asked that question. We learned that it was not the eyes that were to be removed, but rather only the corneas which can restore sight to those who have lost sight. So that discussion at the meeting resulted in NJ Sharing Network revising that specific question to make it clear to families that the cornea is what is being removed, not the full eye. We also review publications and communications that NJSN is planning on issuing from a donor family perspective to help make these more effective and in some cases perhaps less stressful on donor families. We also help in thank you card writing, working with funeral parlor directors, and others to bring our experiences to bear.”
The Betsy Niles Scholarship Fund
Sarnowski started The Betsy Niles Scholarship Fund at the end of 2014 with a $10,000 personal contribution. “From that point on all contributions to our team Betsy’s Dash goes into this fund,” he said. “We have over $25,000 in the fund as of year end 2016. Betsy spent most of her career in the field of education. She had graduated from Columbia University Teacher’s College and worked for such major educational publishers as Pearson Learning and Scholastic. I thought one of the best ways to honor her work and her legacy was to have scholarships awarded in her name to high school seniors who have been associated with organ and tissue donation. We awarded our first scholarship in June 2016 to Blake Rogalsky of Marlboro HS. Blake’s father is a heart transplant recipient and Blake has personally done extraordinary work supporting NJSN and its mission. We will award our next scholarship this upcoming June.”
In addition Sarnowski's volunteer work as 5K chair, member of the Donor Family Council and volunteer speaker, he is a member of the NJ Sharing Network's Foundation Board (and this year will be the Treasurer of the Board). He is am also a member of the Awards & Recognition Committee which oversaw the design and construction of a beautiful memorial garden at The NJ Sharing Network's headquarters. “We were honored to be one of the families chosen to go to Pasadena California in December 2015 to participate in the Donate Life Rose Parade float, with a floragraph (actual photo covered in seeds and grasses) of Betsy riding on the float on New Year’s morning Jan 1, 2016. Her floragraph is now on permanent display at NJSN HQ’s.”
It was recently Betsy Niles' birthday, and Sarnowski remembered it with a nostalgic posting on his Facebook page, "Happy birthday, Betsy. I hope you are taking Molly for a long walk today and having a few glasses of Kendall Jackson with your parents tonight to celebrate. Love you always."
Niles was known for always giving the perfect gift for every occasion and her last gift was the greatest gift of all...the gift of life.
Anyone can become an organ donor. The NJ Sharing Network is a non-profit, federally designated organ procurement organization committed to saving and enhancing lives through the miracle of organ and tissue donation and transplantation. They are responsible for the recovery of organs and tissue for the nearly 5,000 New Jersey residents currently awaiting transplantation. They are also part of the national recovery system, which is in place for the more than 120,000 people on waiting lists. For further information or to become an organ donor visit www.njsharingnetwork.org.