Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Husband’s death spurs commitment to organ donations

By EMMA OGUTU
Capital News Service

LANSING — Catherine Valovick remembers her husband fondly.

James Valovick was passionate and full of life, always on the go, a loving husband, dedicated professor and chair of the philosophy department at Northwestern Michigan College, where he taught Eastern and Western religions, philosophy and critical thinking.

“We were having breakfast this December morning and Jim was preparing to attend the funeral of one of his colleagues,” said Valovick who lives in Traverse City.

But Jim never came close to attending his friend’s burial, instead, his wife and children were planning his burial by the end of that day.

“He fell over at the breakfast table and was rushed to Munson Medical Center where they found that he had a ruptured brain aneurysm,” she said.

When the hemorrhage in his brain got worse, Catherine knew it was time to let go.

It had been her husband’s wish never to be kept on a life-support machine if his condition got to that point.

Her husband also had another final wish – to give someone else the gift of life by donating his organs.

A day after Jim’s death, a 73-year-old man in Pittsburgh had been matched with Jim’s lungs. Two 50-year-old men in Michigan got his liver and one kidney, while the other kidney saved the life of a 50-year-old woman, also from Michigan.

Although Jim’s heart was still in good condition, Valovick said, doctors decided that it couldn’t be donated for medical reasons.  But his corneas were stored in an eye bank.

“My children and I told the hospital to use whatever they could use according to Jim’s wishes,” she said.

The need for organ donation remains strong in the state, according to Betsy Miner-Swartz, a communication specialist with the Gift of Life Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based organization that coordinates organ and tissue transfers.

“We rely on people donating their organs and tissues, which is why it’s important to raise awareness of organ and tissue donation,” she said.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson recently announced an initiative that directs her department’s employees to ask customers, time permitting, if they’d like to join the donor registry.

The announcement coincided with the latest reports from Donate Life America, which ranked the state 46 out of 50 and the District of Columbia, in adult organ registration.

While the national average is 41 percent, Michigan’s rate stands at 27 percent even though its donor registry is one of the oldest in the country.

Tim Makinen, communications director at Gift of Life, said many people assumed they were automatically registered after signing the back of their drivers’ licenses, according to Makinen.

That wasn’t true and was one reason why Michigan’s participation rate is so low, he said.

“You don’t sign the back of your license anymore,” said Makinen.

As part of its National Donation Life Month donor drive, Gift of Life is urging people to sign up through its website, giftoflifemichigan.org, by calling 800-482-4881 or visiting any Secretary of State office.

Richard Pietroski, chief executive officer of Gift of Life, applauded Johnson’s move.

“This new policy and Secretary Johnson’s efforts will save more lives,” he said.

About 18 people die each day in the U.S. for lack of available organs for transplant, according to Donate Life America.  And a new name is added to the national waiting list every 10 minutes.

To bridge the dearth, the Gift of Life runs awareness programs, including an annual “Buddy Day” where volunteers distribute literature and ask Secretary of State customers to join the list.

Since her husband’s death in 2007, Valovick has been become a “buddy” volunteer.

“I simply ask them if they have a red heart on their licenses,” she said.  “If they say no, I ask if they would like to become donors.”

Valovick, her children and a brother who received a donated cadaver bone, are registered donors.  Her 16-year-old grandson has also expressed wishes to sign up when he gets his driver’s license.

“We are very proud of what Jim did,” she said.  “It felt very good to know that there were people who could use his life.  To give another person a gift of life is the most selfless act one could ever do to another.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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