Kristen Ames Lovelace and Jim Lovelace.JPG

After Jim Lovelace learned that his sister-in-law, Kristen Ames Lovelace, needed a kidney transplant due to kidney disease, he mulled the decision to step forward and offer one of his own, ultimately submitting to the rigorous tests that would determine if he was a suitable donor. 

“I’m in my mid-50s, I’m healthy, I just felt like I was in a position to do this,” Jim said. Eventually, a bevy of examinations determined he was eligible. “Once I was told I was a match, there wasn’t any going back as far as I was concerned.”  

Jim underwent the transplant surgery this year, and now, his former kidney has provided a new lease on life to his sister-in-law, Kristen, who lives in Oklahoma City. “It’s a gift unlike anything anyone will ever get,” Kristen said.  

More than 100,000 people in the United States need a lifesaving organ transplant, with over 63,000 on active waiting lists, according to the United Network for Organ sharing, which tracks transplant data. Many of those surgeries are performed every year in Fairfax County at the Fairfax Inova hospital, which oversees a range of operations like heart, kidney, pancreas and lung transplants. According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, 43 heart transplants alone were conducted at Fairfax Inova in 2020. 

In response to the nationwide need for more organ donors, many community groups are stepping up to spread the word, with a leading event being National Donor Sabbath. Two weekends before Thanksgiving every year, faith-based organizations across the country celebrate the occasion, a three-day observance that extends from November 12-14 this year. The event emphasizes the critical importance of life-saving organ, eye and tissue donations and encourages community members to consider becoming donors. 

The United Methodist Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna is one among many faith groups that plans to observe the event, with November 14 designated as Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday. Organ donation is codified in the United Methodist Church’s social principles, noted Good Shepherd Pastor Eric Song, who said when congregants “hear stories that are closer to your heart through church family members and loved ones, different awareness is raised.”

Many people “think being a donor is going to be a huge arduous thing and you’re not going to have support. But I’ve found that isn’t the case,” Jim said. He serves as a co-lay leader at Good Shepherd and plans to share his experience this Sunday. He detailed how he was supported extensively throughout the process, especially by staff. “They tell you that you can back out at any time and you don’t owe an explanation to the recipient,” emphasizing that “somebody’s job was to look out for my interests as a donor.”

The necessity of a transplant can create a strange dynamic between those in need and people close in their lives: friends and family want to help but are not sure they can make the leap, and asking it of someone is simply too high of a burden to pass on in good conscience. “It’s awkward,” Kristen said with a laugh. “It’s the most uncomfortable situation I have ever found myself in.”

She said that anyone leaning toward becoming a donor should weigh the decision carefully before informing those in need of their interest, since many people end up backing out of the process. “It’s understandable, but it’s really hard to hear ‘yeah I’ll do it’ and then get ghosted,” she said, cautioning that someone interested in donating should “think a lot before you tell the person that you’re thinking about becoming a donor, because it raises expectations. You need to have your ducks in a row before you make an offer like that.”

Thankfully, Jim did not waver. “This is an example of how we have an opportunity to uniquely be a blessing to someone else. And it’s not a matter of writing a check. We each have these things about us that are unique gifts we can give to others,” he reasoned, saying that “this whole experience has increased my faith that God and science are both at work.”

Marey and Michael Oakes, the latter of whom received a heart transplant at Fairfax Inova, will share their story at the Church of the Good Shepherd as well. Michael, Marey said, underwent a rapid decline after first experiencing a heart attack in January, which atypically presented as flu-like symptoms. The sudden need for a transplant, especially following two silent heart attacks when hospitalized, made them reluctant at first. “We did not have positive thoughts about it. We were dreading it quite honestly and hoping it didn’t have to happen,” she said.

Michael received the transplant in March, and the surgery was successful. “There’s an indescribable, overwhelming gratitude that he was alive. That is not something even now he takes for granted,” Oakes said. 

She hopes that their testimony inspires people to think about becoming a donor. “If one person is moved by what we share, whether to become an organ donor themselves or encourage someone they know, that would be everything,” Oakes said. Speaking at the church is also their chance to give back. “Our source of support were the people of Good Shepherd,” she said, “and we’re using that as an opportunity to thank them.”

Becoming a donor requires sacrifice, but it ends in the gift of life. “It’s a miraculous feeling to see a future when you didn’t see one before,” Kristen said. “I don’t have this black cloud over my head anymore. I didn’t realize how limited I thought my future was beforehand. Now it feels like the world is wide open to me, and it’s almost overwhelming.”

To become an organ donor, you can register at the DMV or online at www.donatelifevirginia.org.

 

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