National Donor Day highlights importance of lifesaving organ gift

| Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, 9:57 p.m.

Jameson McKain underwent four open-heart surgeries before his first birthday.

He was born without the left side of his heart, his mother said, and his life was saved by a 4-month-old baby girl who unfortunately had lost hers.

The little girl's family donated her organs, and her heart beats inside Jameson's chest.

That fifth surgery was “bittersweet,” Danielle McKain said, because she knew a family had to lose a child before hers was given a second chance.

“It saved my family's life,” she said Sunday morning at a news conference to promote National Donor Day, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of becoming an organ donor.

The event was hosted by the Carnegie Science Center in partnership with the Center for Organ Recovery and Education and Donate Life Pennsylvania, groups that campaign to register more people as organ and tissue donors.

“We need to mobilize as a community to make sure every one of us talks to somebody about organ donation,” said Stacey Vernallis, a Fox Chapel attorney who underwent a heart transplant in 2014. “It's the most important gift we can ever give.”

Jameson, 5, loves to play baseball and take swim lessons. He wasn't confident enough to climb the rock wall at the Carnegie Science Center, which hosted the event, but he was quick to congratulate his brother Colin after he did.

He gave a high-five to 12-year-old Faith Kilkeary of Wexford, who received a heart transplant as a baby.

“He's a little miracle,” said McKain of Cecil Township.

Many are waiting for their miracle, said Susan Stuart, president and CEO of CORE.

About 122,000 people are on a waiting list for an organ transplant, 8,000 of them in Pennsylvania.

Jacob Pribanic, 18, is one of them.

He was diagnosed with a serious heart defect as a baby and has undergone dozens of surgeries and procedures. He has been on the transplant waiting list for about three months, he said, after he was diagnosed with another irreversible heart condition.

Pribanic, who lives in Monroeville, says he takes 13 medications every day to keep his heart and organs functioning while he awaits a transplant.

“It's really just a second chance,” he said.

Because of his health problems, he could never participate in gym class at school or play baseball with other kids, he said.

His dreams of becoming a chef and opening a restaurant are on hold until he gets a transplant.

“I'm not going to be able to do that if I have the heart that I have now,” Pribanic said.

He's confident that he will get a new one someday soon.

“Because of other people's sacrifices through donation, I should get a new heart and be able to accomplish the things I wasn't able to before,” he said.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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