I remember the day I became a registered organ donor. I was 23 years old and a few months removed from leaving the State of New York for sunny Southern California.
It was the day I received my new driver’s license, which so conveniently lists your weight in California, as if regular ol’ folks like myself who’d moved to Hollywood needed any added incentive to feel like outcasts. The license also featured a circle for organ donation, on which residents who chose to opt-in to that state’s registry placed a bright pink sticker.
I hadn’t really thought much about organ donation before that point in my life. In fact, I can’t remember a time before then in which I was ever encouraged to become a donor.
I asked my girlfriend at the time if I should register, to which I received an emphatic “Of course.”
I’ve been a donor ever since and the red heart on my New York State license today is a source of personal pride. I look forward to the opportunity to one day be able to possibly help save a life, even if I know that could mean the end of my own.
This past week I was scrolling my Facebook news feed when I noticed a link to a press release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that was shared on the Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation page. It detailed new legislation the governor had signed into law authorizing 16- and 17-year-olds to make organ donations upon their deaths.
The legislation is of significance to the Cutinella family because of Thomas’ own sacrifice upon his untimely death at age 16, when the Shoreham-Wading River football player was involved in a collision with another player in a game on Oct. 1, 2014.
Kelli Cutinella, Thomas’ mother, told me this week that her son had inquired about organ donation the day he received his learner’s permit, but was told he needed to be 18 to register. Today, his mom views it as a sign that pointed to just what the family needed to do upon his death months later. Under previous state law, the family could opt to donate the organs of someone under 18 years of age if the deceased had expressed a desire to do so.
Knowing their son wouldn’t want it any other way, the Cutinellas donated Thomas’ heart, corneas, liver, pancreas, both kidneys and much of his skin, veins and bones.
The family has since met with three recipients of Thomas’ organs, and Ms. Cutinella even ran the New York City Tunnel to Towers event with the 21-year-old Fordham University student who received his son’s heart less than 48 hours after he died.
“It was such a tragedy for that family, but they did such a selfless thing for me and my family,” recipient Karen Hill told Newsday for a story published around the first anniversary of Thomas’ death. “I’m so grateful for what the Cutinellas did. A year ago, I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs. Now, I’m running again.”
It was a race Ms. Cutinella had previously run with Thomas. This year, she’ll run it with Ms. Hill.
The Cutinella family has taken an active interest in the state legislation regarding organ donation for minors and Ms. Cutinella said she hopes legislators will also approve another bill that eliminates any age restriction on organ donation within the state.
Rereading the Newsday piece on Ms. Hill and the Cutinellas this weekend after learning of the state legislation, I thought about how many more stories of triumph might rise from tragedy if more young people were encouraged to donate.
What I like most about this new law is that it puts organ donation on the minds of individuals at a younger age than in the past. They will now have the opportunity to do so when they receive their permit, like Thomas wanted to, and not be asked about it for the first time years later when they renew their license.
On Monday, I called one of the few people I know who has donated an organ to ask her thoughts on the legislation. Back in April, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, 51, whose district includes a portion of Wading River, became what is known as a living donor when she gave a kidney to her childhood friend Tom D’Antonio, 57, of Northport.
“Next to giving birth to my kids, it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done,” she told me of the sacrifice. “I’m getting goosebumps even now just talking about it. I don’t have the words to describe how good it feels.”
Mr. D’Antonio, who has diabetes, was among 90,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant when his friend stepped up. It was his third transplant; decades earlier, he had received kidneys from his wife and sister. With no other matching relatives, Ms. Bonner, who met Mr. D’Antonio when she was in the seventh grade, decided to step up.
“It happened quickly,” she said. “I called [my husband] and said, ‘I’m giving Tom my kidney.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”
Ms. Bonner said she was back at work in 10 days following the procedure and that both she and her longtime friend are healing well. Her scar is hardly noticeable, she said.
Ms. Bonner and Mr. D’Antonio have since told their stories to several media outlets and hope to spread the word about living donations as much as they can. Soon after the procedure, Ms. Bonner started using the hashtag #sharethespare on social media. She’s also been invited to speak at an upcoming organ donation symposium at Stony Brook University.
Of course, not everyone lives to tell their side of a donation story. And it’s up to those who live on to speak out for them.
Much like Thomas Cutinella, Mattituck’s Kaitlyn Doorhy told her mother when she was just 15 that she wanted to be an organ donor. Kaitlyn had been looking at her mom’s license one day when she inquired about the red heart on it.
A year ago, at a memorial service for Ms. Doorhy, who was killed at age 20 in 2014 after being fatally struck by a car near her college campus, Karen Paulick of Cutchogue shared her own liver transplant story with those in the crowd.
“Although we never met, I felt a deep emotional connection to her when I heard about her passing,” Ms. Paulick said. “I reached out to her family to let them know what organ donation has meant to my life. Although there’s deep sorrow and pain for the donor’s family, much hope and joy is given to numerous other families on the transplant list. Her life has changed the lives of people who will always be grateful for her gift of life.”
Kaitlyn helped save four lives, her mom said, by donating her lungs, liver and a kidney. The Doorhys have been contacted by all four recipients and are in the process of meeting one of them, Ms. Doorhy said.
Shortly after Thomas’ death, Ms. Doorhy reached out to Ms. Cutinella. Although their children were four years apart in age, the mothers believe they had very similar spirits. After all, both gave just about the greatest gift anyone could upon their deaths.
The mothers hope they’ll get to see what becomes of the people on the receiving end of their children’s donations.
“We get to see Tom’s legacy move on as we build a relationship with each of these people,” Ms. Cutinella said. “As they accomplish great things in their lives, Tom will accomplish it with them.”
Caption: A new memorial rock in memory of Thomas Cutinella outside the Shoreham-Wading River football field. (Credit: Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation Facebook page)
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]