Son's donation gives his grieving family perspective

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 10:10 p.m.

As Dr. Dennis Cruff stood in a Virginia operating room, watching a fellow surgeon transplant bone into a patient, he thought of his son.

“That was the first time it really dawned on me that this is somebody. This could be Zach,” recalled Cruff, 54, who was assisting with a spinal surgery in Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton.

Two months earlier, in July 2012, Zach Cruff, 24, had died following a car accident.

His kidneys, bone and skin were donated, his father recalled, because “it just would have been a crime to waste perfectly good organs.”

The organ procurement organization that handled Zach's donation, Virginia Beach-based LifeNet Health, doesn't just recover organs. It processes tissues into dozens of items: heart valves, veins of various lengths, bones cut into shafts, cubes and chips.

LifeNet, which has revenue exceeding $150 million a year, buys tissues from other procurement organizations and markets products to hospitals and other health care providers. The nonprofit, which bills itself as “the largest full-service tissue banking system in the world,” paid the Center for Organ Recovery & Education in O'Hara $5.2 million for tissue recovery in 2011.

In an email to the Tribune-Review, LifeNet executive vice president Douglas Wilson said donor tissue is in high demand and many types are not in a “ready” state of supply.

Patients in CORE's service area have priority for tissues recovered in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and one county in New York.

LifeNet says it distributes nearly a half-million tissue implants every year. It listed assets of $95 million in 2011 and paid CEO Rony Thomas a compensation package of $656,269.

The Cruffs, who live in Poquoson, Va., about 35 miles north of Norfolk, said they support organ donation. Their son's Virginia driver's license carried a red heart identifying him as an organ donor, and he had talked with his parents about organ donation.

Still, they recalled a particularly painful moment hours after their son was admitted to a hospital with severe head injuries.

As Zach lay in an intensive care unit, his father overheard a nurse taking a call outside the room. The conversation was about approaching the Cruff family to discuss organ donation.

“There was a little of that vulture aspect,” said Lisa Allam-Cruff, 54, Zach's mother.

Overwhelmed by his son's condition, Cruff asked the nurse not to talk about donation until the family was ready. A week later, when the family decided to withdraw life support, the couple approached LifeNet.

“I get that they need to do that, but that's the last thing I wanted to hear,” he said.

Allam-Cruff said she gave approval for any salvageable organ and tissue except those that would be used for research. She had just read the best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” about a poor black woman from Maryland whose cells laid the foundation for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry.

“I'm not saying I would want money from it, but I don't want others making money from it, either,” she said.

Cruff called LifeNet a wonderful organization, recalling how people who received his son's kidneys and eyes sent thank-you cards to his family. Each card helped Zach's parents remember their son in a positive way.

Cruff wonders if Zach somehow knew his life would be short.

After a semester at James Madison University to please his dad, Zach worked in a motorcycle shop.

“He lived within his means, day-to-day, just the nicest, nicest kid you could have met,” Cruff said. “But he didn't live for the future. He lived for the day.”

Andrew Conte and Luis Fábregas are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Conte at 412-320-7835 or Reach Fábregas at 412-320-7998 or

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