Lower Burrell mayor, youngster raise awareness for organ donation
Rich Callender of Lower Burrell and Lucas Goeller of Indiana Township are an unlikely duo with a common past.
Callender, 48, and Lucas, 3, both were at the brink of death last summer because of terminal illnesses. Callender's lungs were failing from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis; Lucas was plagued by a liver disease called biliary atresia.
Both were saved by organ transplants.
On Wednesday, they added another similarity: the title of “Mayor of Lower Burrell.”
Callender temporarily “relinquished” his title to Lucas as the two proclaimed it Organ Donor Awareness Day in Lower Burrell. Westmoreland County Commissioners Ted Kopas and Gina Cerilli extended the honor throughout the county.
Cradled in the arms of his father, Rick Goeller, Lucas sucked his fingers and gazed uneasily at the staring, smiling faces of family, city workers and media that packed city council chambers during the ceremony.
But the boy perked up when Councilman Joe Grillo also named him an honorary fireman.
Lucas led his brothers Cooper and Jacob and other children in the extended family on an “inspection” of city fire engines, an ambulance, dump trucks, construction equipment and police cars.
Lucas at times seemed overwhelmed by the crowd and loud equipment, but his older brother Cooper, 4, made a strong case to lead the public works department as he helped foreman Scott Johnson and city worker Ian Smith operate a backhoe and front-end loader.
Police Chief Tim Weitzel then chauffeured the new mayor to Burrell Lake Park to formally open the newly renovated playground. He and his brothers put the sandbox to use after a catered picnic that Callender made sure included Lucas' favorite: chicken fingers.
Callender said he sponsored the event to raise awareness of the need for more organ donors.
“If I can get one person to donate, it makes this worthwhile,” Callender said.
Involving Lucas in the event made sense to Callender because they went through their transplants at the same time and the boy has family in Lower Burrell.
Lucas was saved in the nick of time when the family of Olivia Swedberg, a 3-year-old Nebraska girl dying of brain cancer, agreed to designate her liver for Lucas.
Olivia's family learned of Lucas' plight after his family made a last-ditch effort to publicize his dire need for a new liver.
Lucas' mother, Jessica Goeller, described receiving the “knee-buckling” news that her son would die within a year unless he got a new liver.
As her son's eyes yellowed, he began having difficulty breathing due to his expanding liver squashing his lungs. In June, when he seemed out of touch and was waving at blank walls, Jessica Goeller knew the end was near.
“Eleven months pass and he has one month to live and you know the doctor's right in his estimation (of life expectancy),” Goeller tearfully recalled. “You know heaven is preparing to take your child. What would you do when your child has two weeks left to live?”
A private person who rarely used Facebook, Goeller believes God led her family to create the “Save Lucas” Facebook page that eventually connected them with Olivia's family.
Now the Goellers can rejoice in the mundane activities Lucas experiences: playing in mud puddles, vacuuming, beating up his brothers.
Lucas' illness took a toll on the whole family, Jessica Goeller said: “Everybody lives now because Lucas lives.”
In early July, as Lucas was undergoing his liver transplant at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Callender was a couple of miles away at UPMC Presbyterian hospital getting new lungs.
Callender said he was diagnosed in 2004 with a terminal disease that prevents his lungs from absorbing oxygen. At the time, he was given three to five years to live. His oldest child was 7; his youngest was about to be born.
Callender said he was lucky to make it 11 years until his lungs began collapsing last May and he was added to the transplant list. He said two sets of donor lungs were rejected before a compatible set arrived July 4.
Katelynn Metz of the O'Hara-based Center for Organ Recovery and Education, a federally designated organ procurement organization, said the number of people nationwide awaiting an organ transplant would overflow Penn State's Beaver Stadium. An average of 22 people on the waiting list die daily.
“There are 121,000 people across the country just like (Callender and Lucas),” Metz said.
“Without my donor, I wouldn't be here,” Callender said. “Me and Lucas would be playing catch in heaven.”
Liz Hayes is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or 724-226-4680.