Brush Valley fundraiser for double-lung recipient focuses on organ donation awareness

| Friday, May 10, 2013, 3:24 p.m.

Jim Anderson spent his working days operating heavy equipment in the construction industry and serving as a volunteer firefighter in the Brush Valley Fire Department.

“It got to the point where it was 50 or 60 days working without a day off,” said Anderson, 61, of Brush Valley. “We worked long hours depending on the weather.”

Then his health deteriorated, and he could no longer work. He was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2008. IPF is a disabling and sometimes fatal disease of unknown cause that scars lung tissue and makes it more difficult for a person to breathe.

“I needed oxygen 24/7,” Anderson said. “There is no cure for IPF.”

Now, five years into an early retirement due to IPF, Anderson is happy to be alive while recovering from the only treatment available for the disease. He had a double-lung transplant in January.

“I'm lucky and feel good and thankful,” Anderson said. “They're still working with regulating medications, but other than that, I'm pretty good. So far, there is no sign of rejection.”

He is working on building strength through rehabilitation and physical therapy.

“I'm making progress,” he said. “It will take time. As far as the operation, I'm healing.”

Anderson's niece, Denise Buzzinotti, has helped organize a May 19 event at the Brush Valley fire hall that will double as a fundraiser to help with her uncle's medical expenses and an opportunity to shed light on the life-changing benefits of organ donation.

Buzzinotti said she quickly realized, “We also needed to use this event as a springboard to raise awareness for organ donation.”

While the identity of the donor who provided her uncle's new lungs remains unknown, Buzzinotti said she and her extended family have a deep appreciation for the donor and the donor's family.

“I am reminded with every breath I watch my Uncle Jim take, no longer attached to an oxygen tank, that without the unselfish, loving, incredible gift given to him, he would not be with us.,” Buzzinotti said. “Because of this donor and the family's willingness to donate his or her organs, I get to watch my uncle as he plays with his two young grandchildren. I get to watch my aunt lovingly look at him and hear his only child, Christopher, talk to his dad about normal, everyday life.”

Buzzinotti said friends and family, including her mother, Regina Miller, have pitched in to help organize the May 19 event.

A representative of CORE (Center for Organ Recovery and Education) is expected to be on hand to help educate those in attendance and to answer their questions about organ donation. The United Junior High cheerleaders and their parents also have volunteered time to assist with the event.

“What an amazing opportunity to start organ donor awareness at a young age,” Buzzinotti said.

Karen Dotts of Indiana, whose son, Timmy, was an organ donor, also will attend to share her experiences.

Dotts said knowing that her son's organ donations have prolonged and saved the lives of others has eased her family's grief following his death, at age 23, in a 2005 ATV accident.

“He said if anything ever happened to him, he wanted his organs to be donated. He made the decision,” Dotts said of her son. “He was in a coma for eight days. We knew before he was actually pronounced dead they could use his organs. We told them to use whatever organs they could.”

She said a woman in Missouri received one of her son's kidneys, a man received a kidney and pancreas, skin was used for multiple burn victims and the bladder and heart were also used.

“We got to meet the heart recipient,” Dotts said. “It was a perfect match. He was a 60-year-old man in Altoona named Bill. He lived to 65. He got cancer from the anti-rejection drugs. He felt bad that he was dying and that it was Timmy's heart dying. Even after Bill died, we still met with his wife.”

Dotts said she decided to participate in the Brush Valley event to share her son's story and to show that organ donation is a wonderful gift.

She noted that her son is “still helping, and he's still here. It's a blessing that, through his death, there is that comfort.”

David Kelly, 44, of Homer City plans to participate in the fundraiser to help with awareness of organ donation. He is a nephew of Anderson's and is also an organ recipient.

Kelly was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of seven and suffered throughout his youth. “I was very sick,” he said. “It flared up. I was getting three shots of insulin a day.”

He first received a kidney and pancreas in 1996.

“My kidneys shut down because of diabetes,” Kelly explained. “In 1995, I needed the kidney, and I had to wait about half a year. I had to get the pancreas to get the kidney.”

In 2000, Kelly's kidney rejected and he underwent dialysis three times a week until he received another kidney transplant in 2007.

Now, he said, “My diabetes is taken care of. My kidney functions. I'm very fortunate. I have 20 years in fire service at the Homer City VFD. I have twin daughters that are two years old now. I never thought I'd be a father just because of my medical condition. I'm living a normal life.”

A donor's survivors can choose not to have contact with those who received their loved one's organs, which was the case with Kelly's transplant. But, he said, “I hope this gives people more understanding about donors. I wish more people would donate. There are people waiting for transplants and on dialysis.”

Buzzinotti said she hopes the May 19 event will allow those attending “to ask questions that will ease their minds about becoming an organ donor.”

In a region that includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York, CORE handles the organ-matching process and coordinates the recovery of organs, tissues and eyes for transplantations. It has helped to provide more than 300,000 such transplants since its inception 30 years ago.

More than 117,000 people are awaiting an organ transplant nationwide, according to CORE statistics. CORE claims at least 18 people will die each day without receiving one.

Only 45 percent of registered drivers in Pennsylvania have chosen to become organ donors, according to CORE.

In addition to the  May 19 event, Brush Valley's volunteer firefighters plan to host another fundraiser to benefit Anderson. A spaghetti dinner will be held 4 to 7 p.m. May 15 at the fire hall.

Debbie Black is a freelance writer.

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