A gift that keeps on giving

Health. In recognition of national Donate Life Month this month, organ donor recipients share their stories and appreciation for the lives lost so they could survive.

Newton /
| 25 Apr 2024 | 09:26

In February 2018, New York resident Allison Davis, a 30-year old single mother with cystic fibrosis, was struggling to survive. She had suffered from the lung disorder nearly all of her life, diagnosed at just 18 months, and now she was on death’s door, stuck on life support, hoping for a miracle. A few hundred miles south, in Frederick, Maryland, Erik Reider, 31, was being pronounced legally dead. Brain function was nonexistent, but his body was still alive. This is how one family’s tragedy became another’s salvation.

Erik was this reporter’s younger brother. He was funny, smart, and an amazing storyteller who never backed down from a bad decision. He had run-ins with peers, teachers, and eventually the law. He even spent a few years in prison — a traumatic experience that actually changed him for the better. When he was released, he was determined to follow a positive path. He earned certifications as a personal trainer and helped people of all ages and abilities regain their strength, from senior citizens recovering from serious injuries, to athletes and soldiers getting ready to deploy. He was even about to start a fitness-oriented teaching position at the local communtiy college. In other words, he was very fit.

On February 16, 2018, he took something he shouldn’t have and went into cardiac arrest, alone in his apartment. By the time he got to the emergency room, nothing could be done but keep his body alive while his family drove the seven hours down to say their goodbyes and make final arrangements.

On the morning of February 17, we all gathered by his side, told him we loved him, and waited for the results of the final brain scan to confirm death. Through the cloud of mourning and despair, a representative from Living Legacy, an organ donation organization, came into his hospital room. The representative said that, based on the initial tests, many of Erik’s major organs could be donated. His lungs, heart, kidneys, pancreas, liver could all go to people who needed transplants right now. It didn’t take us much time to say yes. If something good could come out of his untimely death, well, we were going to do it. The only objection came from my father, who didn’t want anyone else to have my brother’s eyes, as if worried that someday he may see them in a stranger’s face. But we knew, with Erik’s new lease on life, he would have wanted to help as many people as he could.

In the end, six of his organs went to people in need. His heart went to a 61-year-old man, his liver to a 51-year-old man, his right kidney to a 47-year-old man, his left kidney and pancreas went to a 49-year-old woman, and his lungs went to Davis. Some of the people, we later found out, had been on transplant list for years.

On February 20, Davis received his lungs, after a harrowing six-hour drive in a critical care ambulance to a hospital in Pittsburgh. While the recovery was long, eventually we found out that, thanks to Erik, she could breathe again, walk again, even hike again. She could finally be a part of her son’s life, who was only a year old at the time of the transplant, and rejoice in each of his milestones along with her fiancé. Davis’s mother has told this reporter several times over the years how grateful their family is. And now, even years later, she still thinks about Erik’s “gift” every day and how it gave her family a new chance at life.

A working heart

In September 2015, Newton, NJ, resident Wendy Carr woke up after feeling significant pressure and pain in her chest. Eventually she had a stent inserted to prop open the artery and allow blood flow. But while still recovering, she suffered a massive heart attack that essentially destroyed her heart.

She shared her story with the organ donation firm the NJ Sharing Network: “The left side of my heart stopped working,” said Carr. “I could no longer do many of the things that I used to take for granted. When I moved too quickly, I would get winded. I could barely get up a flight of steps.”

After additional medical treatments failed to restore function, she was added to the heart transplant list. On January 18, 2023, Carr underwent a successful heart transplant. By June, she was back celebrating life, and even able to watch her son, Nick, get married.

”My recovery after transplant has not always been easy, but I have come a long way and I am getting stronger every day,” said Carr. “As much as we rejoice in this miracle, we always keep my organ donor angel and their family in our thoughts and prayers. I am forever grateful.”


Allison Ognibene has lived most of her life in Sparta, NJ, making community connections and building a family with her husband Bill. She’s also one of the longest-living heart and double-lung transplant recipients in the world, according to the NJ Sharing Network, which also shared her story.

“It is hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the miracle of organ donation and transplantation gave me a second chance to live life to its fullest,” said Ognibene, who endured a heart and double-lung transplant back in 1988. “I have always appreciated the caring people of Sparta who have always been there to support me. I am forever grateful to my organ donor. It is profound to know that so many transplant recipients, like me, are alive because of the generosity of others.”

As a child, she was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension, a rare disorder that can randomly elevate your artery pressure. This same disorder claimed the lives of her father and two sisters, but thanks to her organ donor, she has survived.

“I am living proof of the power of organ and tissue donation and transplantation,” said Ognibene. “I have made it my personal mission to encourage as many people as possible to register as organ and tissue donors. Just one organ and tissue donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of over 75 others.”

Donors wanted

These stories represent just a fraction of the many people saved through organ donations every day. We might only hear of their stories in the month of April as part of national “Donate Life” month, but for those who have to wait on that donor list, they can only hope to one day share their own success stories.

While organ donations have drastically increased over the years, the need remains high. Currently, 2,464 people are on the organ donor wait list in NJ. In Pennsylvania, 6,603 people are waiting, and in New York State, 7,997 people are on the wait list, according to the federal Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network.

The majority of those people are waiting for kidneys, which is one of the few organs that can come from a living donor. In fact, you can donate one kidney, a segment of your liver, one lobe of the lung, a part of the pancreas, or a part of your intestine as a living donor. Living donors can also donate skin, bone (like after a knee or hip replacement), cells (bone marrow, umbilical cord blood), amnion (the innermost membrane around an embryo) after birth, and blood. In death, one could donate both kidneys, their full liver, both lungs, the heart, the pancreas, intestines, corneas, various tissues (veins, tendons, ligaments, the middle ear, etc.), and even hands and faces. Just one donor can potentially save eight lives, and help improve the lives of several others.

How to become an organ donor
New York
New York State has a donate life registry that anyone 16 and over can enroll in at donatelife.ny.gov/register.
You can also select to be an organ donor while signing up for health insurance through the New York State of Health Marketplace, when registering to vote, when applying for or renewing your driver’s license or DMV-issued ID, or after completing a paper enrollment form that can be found at donatelife.ny.gov.
You just need to have your mailing address, email address, and the last four digits of your social security number or your NYS DMV ID number.
New Jersey
In New Jersey, organ donation registration takes place either online at donatelife-nj.org or in person at any motor vehicle agency. Residents can be 14 years or older to register. When registering at an agency, you must present the required six points of ID well as verification of your address, and reconfirm your decision each time you renew your license or ID.
More information can be found by calling the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network at 1-800-ShareNJ or the Gift of Life Donor Program at 1-800-366-6771.
In Pennsylvania, if you are under the age of 18, you must get a parent or guardian’s signature to have the donor designation placed on your driver’s license, learner’s permit, or ID. You can sign up to be a donor online through dmv.pa.gov and clicking “yes” for organ and tissue donation when you get or renew your driver’s license, learner’s permit or photo ID. You can also sign up through Pennsylvania’s Donate Life registry at donatelifepa.org.
More information can be found by calling the Pennsylvania Department of Health at 877-PA-HEALTH, Donate Life America at 804-377-3580, or Gift of Life Donor Program at 1-800-366-6771.
Each state also encourages prospective organ donors to let their families know of their decision to donate organs upon death. There are no fees associated with organ donation or registration.
“I am living proof of the power of organ and tissue donation and transplantation. I have made it my personal mission to encourage as many people as possible to register as organ and tissue donors. Just one organ and tissue donor can save eight lives and enhance the lives of over 75 others.” — Allison Ognibene, Sparta, NJ