Transplant recipients give thanks

OFFERING THANKS — Kayla Gray, family support coordinator for the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, stands in front of a quilt made by the families of donors as she thanked Weirton Medical Center for helping the 114,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the nation. -- Amy Neeley

WEIRTON — Gary Cunningham was just a normal guy living a normal life, but he had a cough and shortness of breath that he just couldn’t shake, he told an audience at Weirton Medical Center on Thursday.

The group was gathered to hear about the Center for Organ Recovery and Education.

Cunningham, a Glen Dale resident, said he finally went to the doctor and it was then he discovered he suffered from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

IPF is a rare and serious lung disease marked by severe scarring of the lungs. There is no cure at this time.

“This disease hits someone for no reason,” Cunningham said. “I met a 14-year-old who had it and a 20-year-old who had her first transplant at 14 and was now getting her second. She is alive and doing fine.

“You just take shots and pills and try to live with it for a few years. You hope that when things go bad you are in the right place.”

Cunningham was in the right place — he was approved for a transplant and just had to wait for the right organ to come along.

It did 14 days later.

On March 5, 2013, Cunningham got the call his family had been waiting for — they had a pair of lungs coming in from New Jersey and it was a match.

“You have to call every 15 minutes on the way to tell the team you weren’t in an accident,” he said. “Usually they call the next person on the list just in case you don’t get there. (The transplant team) doesn’t want the organ to go to waste. For whatever reason I was the only one called –I guess they trusted my wife’s driving.”

That night, Cunningham was given a double lung transplant in surgery that lasted 10 and a-half hours.

After the surgery, he was moved to the intensive care unit, where he resided for two weeks before being released on March 18, his birthday.

“I now celebrate two birthdays March 5 and March 18 — 6 and 60,” he said.

Cunningham is now a CORE volunteer and an advocate at the DMV to encourage people to check the box on their license.

He said donors should also make sure to tell their family and loved ones their wishes as well.

Kayla Gray, the Family Support Coordinator of CORE, also spoke at Weirton Medical about the 114,000 people on the waiting list for organ transplants in the nation.

She thanked WMC for its work in helping with the process.

“Without you we could not complete the moving circle of life,” she said.

Kelli McCoy, the director of communications for WMC, also thanked the staff of the hospital.

“I am proud of the role our hospital, especially our emergency room staff, plays in this process,” she said.

McCoy said the hospital was able to do three corneal transplants and four tissue transplants. She said the one donation helps several people. The three corneal transplants alone helped six people.

“I will never know the (donor), but they are in my heart every day, forever,” Cunningham said.

April is National Donate Life Month. Information on CORE can be found of the website or by calling (412) 963-3550.