In his wallet, Paul Meigs keeps a photo of an 18-year-old he never met.
Meigs, who will turn 81 later this year, tried years ago to track down the yearbook photo, which he thinks is of the teen who donated him a kidney more than 20 years ago. While he’s never gotten confirmation that it’s his donor, Meigs is fairly certain the young man saved his life.
He shows the photo to each of the Johnston County driver education classes he talks to about the importance of organ donation.
“I think it’s a necessary thing,” Meigs said. “The kids don’t hear about organ donation or transplantation from anyone else that I know of, and this is my way of getting in.”
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He started talking to driver education classes shortly after moving to the Wilson’s Mills area from Syracuse, N.Y., about seven years ago.
His wife, Beverly, said her husband’s interest in organ donation started after he received his kidney in 1993. When they moved to North Carolina, she hoped the activism that started in New York would continue. It did.
After initially having trouble finding a local support group for donor families and recipients, Meigs sought out Carolina Donor Services, a Durham-based organ-procurement group that serves hospitals and transplant centers across the state.
The group helped Meigs coordinate visits to high school driver education classes. Today, he makes presentations about once a month at six high schools in Johnston County and one in Wake. During his talks, which last about an hour, Meigs shares with students the growing need for donors.
“All students should be aware that they are an opportunity to donate their kidneys or another organ to those who need it,” Meigs said.
Nationwide, about 123,300 candidates are on waiting lists for organ transplants, including about 3,130 in North Carolina, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. In 2014, doctors performed 24,383 transplants – roughly 19,600 with organs from deceased donors and about 4,700 from living donors.
In his presentation to students, Meigs said, he tries to dispel myths about organ donation. He also explains that many registered donors won’t be able to donate because they will die of some cause that precludes organ donation.
“That limits the amount of organs that can be transplanted,” Meigs said.
Living donors can donate kidneys, in addition to the lobe of a lung, a partial liver, pancreas or intestine.
At the end of his talk, Meigs asks the students for a show of hands of who is interested in registering. “Most of the kids typically raise their hands,” he said.
Meigs is one of more than 500 “Friends for Life” ambassadors who, through Carolina Donor Services, help with donor drives and talk to students, civic clubs and churches across the state. Students are one of the most important target audiences, as many of them will decide if they want to be organ donors when they get their driver’s license at age 16.
“One of the things we’ve looked at is educating teens not about how to answer that question but what that question means,” said Taylor Anderson, coordinator of community relations for Carolina Donor Services. “There is a lot of incorrect information out there, and we want to make sure when they go to make a decision, they are making an informed decision.”
A ‘perfect match’
Before his transplant in 1993, Meigs had lived for nearly 10 years with glomerulonephritis, which the National Kidney Foundation describes as a group of diseases that injure the part of the kidney that filters blood.
Meigs learned he had the disease after his ankle swelled during a camping trip, and he dealt with occasional complications from the disorder for almost a decade. Eventually, doctors said the kidney was getting worse; he had to have a transplant.
At that time, in the early 1990s, Meigs said, he was on a waiting list of 30,000 transplant candidates. It took about three months before he “got the call.” “They said, ‘Come on down; we’ve got a kidney for you,’ ” he said.
While Meigs said his body had a slight rejection to the new organ, something he said was normal, his wife said she remembers the doctor saying, “This is a perfect match.”
Thankful to donor
In the hospital, Meigs had heard that his donor was a young man who died in a car wreck.
Set on finding out more and wanting to say, “Thank you,” Meigs wrote a letter to the regional procurement group in New York, requesting to meet the donor’s family. He didn’t hear back.
Some time later, Meigs attended a transplant games event, where donor recipients and families come together to compete in different sports. After meeting loved ones of deceased donors, Meigs said, he wrote another letter asking to meet the family. This time, he heard back from the procurement group, which informed him the family had moved away from the area.
Using what little they knew about the donor, Meigs and his wife spent two days searching through area library collections and obituaries for a teen who matched the description. They eventually found an obituary for Aaron Mackey, a local 18-year-old who died in a car wreck the same day Meigs learned about his new kidney.
The obituary said Mackey graduated from Greece-Olympia High School in Rochester, N.Y. Meigs visited the school and obtained a copy of Mackey’s high school yearbook photo.
“I use that picture in every class to show how appreciative I am,” Meigs said.
In addition to the photo in his wallet, topped with the phrase, “My Kidney Donor – Aaron Mackey,” Meigs has a laminated one in the briefcase he takes to every school. On the second floor of his home, a larger copy of the same photo rests in a golden frame.