Son's donation gives his grieving family perspective
By Andrew Conte and Luis Fábregas
Published: 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.”
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