Father Eric, Lexi, and mother Danielle Photo by Jeff Barnes

By Joe DeGweck


As I was sitting around this past Easter holiday weekend, watching all the news stories about the miraculous revelations throughout this country, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat left out.

There were sightings of Jesus’s face appearing on windows and crosses on trees. In the past I recall so many news stories of spiritual phenomena that others have been blessed with in their lives and I had to wonder why such wonder was not bestowed upon me. Perhaps it was that I didn’t need these signs of acknowledgement that there is a higher power.

I am a religious man. I believe in God. I have faith and I do not question my conviction in regard to the basic beliefs that I hold true of how I have come to be and what my purpose is for living. But then it dawned on me. That every day I receive signs of a greater power. Every day I witness the miracles of life: the birth of a new born infant, the sweet mischievous innocence of a child as they play, the inquisitive nature of an adolescent as they mature, and the ageing of an adult as they transcend into the golden years of astuteness and wisdom.

These, to me, are the signs of true certainty that there exists a greater power. That there is also a communicable nature that exists between this greater power and myself. This brings me to the main focus of this article. After 50 News would like to recognize and honor the untiring and endless effort of all those in the Western New York community who serve as providers to our very own Upstate New York Transplant Services, UNYTS. This is an agency that for over the past quarter of a century has acted as a “leading procurement organization” in coordinating the efforts necessary for providing life and quality of life concerns to those in need.

The Agency

Upstate New York Transplant Services, UNYTS, was established in 1981. A member of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, UNYTS is a not-for-profit organization serving the eight counties of Western New York. Its primary goal is to assist donor families and to coordinate the donation process in order that we might be able to “give back” the “gift of life” to others.

For seven of the past eight years, Upstate New York Transplant Services has been ranked among the top ten procurement organizations nationwide. The percent of eligible organ donors whose family consent to donation was 91.1% in 2006. This is the highest among the 58 federally authorized OPO’s and 30% ahead of the national average, which is approximately 60%.

It is one of only eight nationwide centers that house laboratory services, and organ, tissue and eye procurement in one location. Since its inception, the staff of UNYTS has grown from a little over a dozen people to over 150 Western New Yorkers who continue to work diligently toward providing opportunity for everyone to give and receive the gift of life.

The number of donors has grown from 200 to nearly 1,000 over the past ten years. In the summer of 2007, UNYTS has added Community Blood Banking Services to its operations. With the acquisition of this service, Upstate New York Transplant Services has provided significant savings to area hospitals and also assurances to blood donors that their blood donation remains local.

Affiliated with 28 regional hospitals and working hand-in hand with procurement organizations across the country, UNYTS has been successful at spreading the message that transplantation is vital - and transplantation saves lives. A spokesperson from UNYTS informed me that over 100,000 people are awaiting transplantation services and that over 450 people in Western New York are in urgent need of these services. He quoted Mark Simon, President and CEO of UNYTS, as saying that “there is no greater reward than providing a service that furthers the gift of life to those in need.”

The Authenticity of Giving

The story you are about to read is a testimonial of a family whose lives have been changed due to the natural and uncontrollable events that affect so many. It is a story of both tragedy and bliss. It is a true account of how sadness and sorrow can be transformed into happiness and exhilaration. It is the story of Lexi Keller’s miracle.

Lexi is an 8-year-old born August 17, 1999 with a congenital heart defect. At the age of 5 months, she underwent her first open heart surgery and six days later Lexi was home. It was a success, but it was not the end of her challenges.

Her mom and dad knew that before entering school, Lexi would need another operation. Over the next four years they watched as she grew along with her family of two new sisters, Hannah and Ella. “Life was good”, says her mom, Danielle. Then, on June 7, 2004, Lexi underwent a risky 9-hour open heart surgery that would give her the opportunity to live a “normal” life. She would no longer need to labor with each breath. She would be able to run and play with the other children. Lexi would be able to blossom and grow into a little girl with a “chance to live life” with her sisters and family.

The prognosis immediately following surgery was good, but within hours her condition changed. Lexi coded and was quickly placed on two forms of life support. Her condition worsened and her family was summoned to come right away if they wanted to see her. That night Lexi endured six hours of bedside surgery and received 52 units of blood.

Over the next six days she had received 3-½ full body transfusions and was placed on the heart transplant list. Her own heart would no longer support her little body. Lexi was now in a coma. Her eyes closed, her body still, her family longed to see her smile once again. They longed to hear her speak. They longed for an embrace, a sign of life from the child they have grown to love as parents do.

After almost two months, the call came that would save Lexi’s life. “She was getting a heart.” To paraphrase Lexi’s mom: as Lexi’s parents we were happy but as parents we were saddened that somewhere another parent had lost their child. We questioned how, in grief and anguish another mother, on the worst day of her life, could “choose to give the Gift of Life to another child”, our child.

On August 7, 2004, Lexi came out of her coma. She thought that it was still the same day as her initial surgery. Ten days later Lexi and her family celebrated her 5th birthday at the hospital. Unlike most five-year-olds who are immersed in ripping off paper from their presents, Lexi knew that she had already received the “greatest gift of all,” her life. She simply said, “It’s so nice to have air.”

Today, Lexi lives with her family right here in Western New York. She is her mom’s “hero.” But her mom recognizes that Lexi is here today because of the many heroes who contributed to her “Gift of Life.” To her heart donor and to all of those who gave blood in order that Lexi might survive long enough to receive her new chance at living. It is truly a miracle created by a community of people who care. A community that sustains a greater power than you or me. A community that exists for the betterment of all.

The complete story of Lexi Keller, told by her mother Danielle, can be read by visiting www.unyts.org and opening their stories and memoirs section.

The Challenges of Promise

As UNYTS continues to serve the people of this community, there are many challenges that must be overcome. Perhaps some of the biggest are misconceptions that we all have concerning the process of offering life and addressing quality of life issues for others in need.

The facts are that a single donor can sometimes enhance the lives of up to 50 people. That you do not have to die to become a donor. There are living donors that can give a part of their liver to help others in need.

You do not need to be young to be a donor. Over 36% of our national donors are 50 years of age or older. People of all ages and medical history can become donors. Each day, 132 people are added to the national donor waiting list. Each day, only 79 organ transplants take place. This has led to a daily growing deficit of 53 people who need help. This has contributed to 18 people dying each day while waiting for a transplant.

The people of Western New York have responded generously in an effort to help their neighbors. For this we should all be proud. That is why I will continue to feel that this is the best place to live in the world. But more can be done.

I urge you that if you become an organ donor please make your family aware of your decision in order that they might respect and honor your wishes. This is often a sensitive and unwanted concern at a time when a family is already in grief.

Also understand that organ donation is a respectful process that honors the donors and has absolutely no effect on the burial proceedings that have been arranged. I have also learned that blood is perhaps the most needed resource in this process. It is used not only during the operations but is often needed to sustain life for those who are waiting for a transplant.

This April, UNYTS will sponsor more than 35 blood drives at various locations throughout Western New York. You are urged to help. Visit their site at donateblood@unyts.org. for more information.

Finally, I feel that I must share a short story with you. This past weekend I sadly attended a funeral for the father of a dear friend of mine. As I sat in the church listening to the eulogies given by his grandchildren, I heard the resounding message of how Grandpa is not dead because he will live with us through the many memories of holidays, vacations and just everyday living.

I feel that this sense of belonging and this need to always hold on and remember those we have grown to love is a reality that blesses all of us. I recall a testimonial by a mother about her 14-year-old son, Andy, who died tragically but was able to provide a chance at life for someone else. His family donated his organs.

Andy’s mom says, “My beautiful son is gone forever, but his heart is still beating.” What greater mission can we embark upon? What greater gift can we give? God has truly blessed all those who have chosen to serve this cause. May God bless you!!!

Sister Hannah, father Eric, Lexi, mother Danielle, and sister Ella Photo by Jeff Barnes  
Lexi and father Eric
Lexi and mother Danielle
Sister Hannah Lexi, and sister Ella
Photo by Jeff Barnes
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