Centennial woman promotes organ, tissue donations

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Today in Colorado, more than 2,000 critically ill patients are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant.

Nationally, the transplant waiting list exceeds 119,000.

For Robin Mitchell, a Centennial resident and mother of five, the unselfish act of registering to be an organ donor has taken on special meaning.

At the age of 15, during the process of applying for his driver's permit, Mitchell's son Joe had registered to be an organ, eye and tissue donor.

“He was a special kid and always wanted to help people,” said Robin Mitchell.

In 2008, at the age of 22, Joe died after suffering a seizure.

After his untimely death, five men received organs from Mitchell's son — his heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and corneas were all used in successful transplant operations.

Mitchell has met four of the five recipients.

“Every time I see them we share a big hug,” she said. “I feel the heart beat and lungs breathing and take comfort in the fact that Joe is living on in someone else.”

Some of the recipients call Mitchell on Joe's birthday or on Mother's Day. “It's helpful and healing,” she said, “and provides some reason and meaning to our tragedy.”

Today, Mitchell calls her son “a hero” — and encourages everyone she meets to talk with their family members and friends about the importance of registering to be an organ donor.

At the upcoming annual Parade of Lights in downtown Denver, Mitchell will be among a group of donation advocates escorting the Donor Alliance's “Gift of Life” float.

Like Mitchell, others walking in the parade have a personal connection to the cause: All are Colorado or Wyoming residents whose family members either were or are donors or have been donation recipients.

Colorado residents can register to be an organ and tissue donor at the website www.donatelifecolorado.org or when they apply for or renew their Colorado driver's license or state ID.

A small red heart on the bottom right corner of a driver's license or ID signifies to public safety personnel, emergency responders and medical personnel that the individual, upon death, has agreed to donate organs, eyes and tissue.

According to the most recent statistics, about 67 percent of Coloradans have signed up to be organ, eye and tissue donors.

“There are no restrictions to registering to be a donor,” said Andrea Smith, director of communications with Donor Alliance.

And those who sign up and then have a change of heart can remove their names from the donor registry by going online to the donatelifecolorado website.

There's a misconception among some people that if doctors or emergency responders see a red heart on an ID or driver's license, they won't try as hard to a save a life, Smith said.

“People are afraid of death in general and fear the worst,” said Smith. “But if you talk to any doctor or medical professional, I guarantee you they'll say the only thing on their mind is saving that person's life.”

For each donor, Smith said as many as eight other lives can be saved through organ donation — heart, both lungs, liver, pancreas, both kidneys and small intestines.

The nonprofit Donor Alliance promotes the fact that donations from a single individual can be utilized in as many as 100 different transplant procedures.

“Things like heart valves and bones can be an amazing gift,” said Smith, who said one of the young victims of the Columbine shooting received a bone transplant that allowed her to regain the use of one of her arms.

Mitchell has been a volunteer for the Donor Alliance since her son's passing in 2008. She has testified before state lawmakers on the importance of donor registries and her advocacy efforts helped lead to the creation of Colorado's Donate Life license plate.

Every year, the lives of about half a million Americans are saved by organ and tissue donation and Mitchell said she is “so proud” to be able to share the story of her son Joe's selfless act.

“At some point, we all have the potential to be a hero to someone else,” Mitchell said.

The 39th annual Parade of Lights will take place the evenings of Dec. 6 and 7.

For more information on registering to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, contact the Donor Alliance at 303-329-4747.

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