The Gift of Life

Options abound for Valley residents who wish to donate organs or tissue

By Alison Stanton

On March 17, 2015, Judy Weinberg received a medical diagnosis that would change her life forever.

Judy’s primary care physician noticed her blood pressure was much higher than normal. The doctor ran several lab tests, one of which indicated that Judy’s kidneys were shutting down.

Judy’s daughter, Jennifer Drago, recalls the experience. “In the course of being in the hospital  my mom started dialysis and we hoped her kidneys would regain function, but they never did.”

Judy, a West Valley resident, continued to receive dialysis for more than two years, spending four hours a day, three times a week at the dialysis center. While thankful for the lifesaving dialysis treatment, she felt fatigued, weak and was in frequent pain due to cramping.

When Judy was asked if she wanted to consider going on the organ transplant waiting list, Jennifer says her mom was initially hesitant.

“She was 74 years old at the time and she wasn’t sure it made sense,” says Jennifer, who is executive vice president of Population Health at Sun Health.

But a nurse at the dialysis center reminded her she was still very healthy and that a transplant could dramatically improve the quality and length of her life.

In April 2017, Judy went on the organ transplant waiting list. She was advised it could be up to two years until she received a donor kidney.

Two-and-a-half months later, Judy’s phone rang in the middle of the night. The medical team at Mayo Clinic had a kidney that was a possible match.

Judy went to the hospital and received her new kidney on June 29, 2017. Within four days, she was back home. She later learned that her donor was a young person who had not survived a car accident.

“Thanks to the kidney donor and the donor’s family, my mom’s life has been transformed,” Jennifer says, adding that Judy no longer needs dialysis and has returned to her hobbies as well as the work that she loves — fitting people with hearing aids.

Anyone can be a donor

People of all ages and with any medical condition are welcome to register to be an organ, tissue and cornea donor, says Nico Santos, media relations coordinator for Donor Network of Arizona.

“People often rule themselves out thinking, ‘Oh, I have diabetes or I’m 92 years old,’ but people from all walks of life are organ donors and we invite people to register no matter what,” Nico says. He tells of a donor who had complications from diabetes whose donations helped 71 people.

Most people register to be an organ donor through the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division when they update or renew their driver’s license or state identification card. They may also sign up at

Let loved ones know

Although the hospital is required to call the Donor Network of Arizona when someone passes away to check the registry, Nico says people should also share their decision with their loved ones.

To protect confidentiality, donor family members can learn about the specifics of their loved one’s recipients but only after both parties agree to share personal and contact information.

“We take care of these heroes, because their loved one went on to save and heal lives,” Nico says.

Donating brain or body in the name of science

For people who wish to donate their entire body and brain to help scientists research conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the Brain and Body Donation program at Banner Sun Health Research Institute provides an option.

“Volunteers can donate their brain or whole body to research. We bank samples of different body organs to help researchers who are studying diseases of all kinds,” says program director Dr. Thomas Beach, M.D., Ph.D.

Approximately 650 volunteers come in once a year to participate in the study, also known as the Arizona Study of Aging and Neurodegenerative Disorders.

“We follow our volunteers to understand and track medical issues that they have through the remainder of their lives. We are also interested in how the brain functions during aging,” he says

By the end of 2019, he hopes the program will grow to allow 800 volunteers.

“The community has been so enthusiastic, we do have a waiting list,” Dr. Beach says, adding that volunteers who currently have Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, REM sleep behavior disorder or cancer will be accepted into the program right away. Others may have to wait two or three years for an opening.

Additional Resources for Whole-Body, Organ and Tissue Donation in Arizona

Donor Network of Arizona:
1-800-94-DONOR •

Banner Sun Health Research Institute, Brain and Body Donation Program
(623) 832-6500 •

LifeLegacy Foundation (now run by Science Care):
800-417-3747 •

Midwestern University, Body Donation Program:
623-806-7990 •

University of Arizona, College of Medicine Tucson, Willed Body Program:
520-626-6083 •

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