When Will Williamson returns to his post, he will be traveling a bit lighter than before he got “the call.”
No oxygen tanks to lug alongside him. No elephant in his chest, making it laborious to breathe. Someone said “yes” to the question “Will you be an organ donor?” and now Williamson can walk unassisted and soon will be back at work at the Department of Motor Vehicles job he loves now more than ever.
This year’s pause to give thanks will be even more heartfelt than ever.
“These people,” he begins, trying to describe his gratitude for the many people working directly and indirectly through Donate Life NC, the North Carolina organ donor network. His voice chokes with emotion. “It’s so many people I’m grateful for.”
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Part of his job for many years has been asking drivers during the licensing process if they would agree to be organ donors. As he explained the program and guided them through checking a couple of boxes and signing up, Williamson grew to appreciate and support the program as a DMV employee.
He was promoted and worked to train new examiners and co-workers, and his support continued. Then came 2011, and he started having trouble breathing. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease meant that he was soon a candidate for a double lung transplant.
“I went through a pre-transplant ‘rehab’ program where they helped me prepare for the surgery. They provided support for all aspects of it,” said Williamson. “You need a lot of support.”
On April 19 of this year, his call came. “That was a long day for my family,” he said. “I must have asked a thousand people if they’d be donors. When I do that now, it’s with a lot more passion.”
Now, he feels he owes his life to the Donate Life NC network and the generosity of every single person who says “yes” to being a donor, potentially saving many lives if they should lose their own.
“Each donor can save as many as eight lives,” said Sharon Hirsch, executive director of Donate Life NC. “I’m so blessed to do this work every day.”
When she went to a meeting recently, there at her table sat Williamson, whom Hirsch has worked with many times since taking the job in 2011. “I didn’t realize it was Will,” she said, smiling. “He looked so much different. He had good color in his face. He looked just great.”
Donate Life NC provides training and materials to the DMV as well as driver’s education instructors to help them educate young people and all new (and renewing) license holders about how organ and tissue donation works. The agency’s partnership with DMV is central to its success, says Hirsch.
With tissue donations, even more is possible. Various forms of tissue can be stored and “banked” until needed. “There’s no waiting list for tissue,” Hirsch said.
With vital organs, timing is critical. The Donate Life network’s coordination provides medical professionals with the information necessary to match donors with recipients as well as some of the fail-safe systems needed to prevent medical errors.
In 2015, the network hopes to sign up 200,000 new donors in North Carolina. It’s an ambitious goal, a stretch of about 11% from 2014’s projected total, but Hirsch believes it can be done.
The network also hopes to diversify its funding, doing more to bring in dollars through events like “Giving Tuesday” (Dec. 2), which encourages holiday shoppers to give money to Donate Life NC in the name of a friend or family member in lieu of another last-minute novelty gift.
As for the donor whose gift saved his life, Williamson is looking forward to the one-year anniversary of his transplant, when Donate Life can deliver a letter he’ll write to the donor’s family to express his gratitude. “There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about that family,” said Williamson.