Category: Archive

A New York cop celebrates the gift of life

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Last summer, Brendan Sullivan stood in a doctor’s office and heard the dreaded news that his 11-year-old son’s heart was so badly damaged by a virus that he would need a transplant operation as soon as possible.

“I just looked at my sister,” said Sullivan, a 41-year-old police officer, “and said, ‘here we go again.’ ”

Incredibly, it was the second time Sullivan was facing a family member who needed a life-saving transplant.

Sullivan has Irish roots, as did his late wife — his father was born outside Castletownbar in County Cork.

In 1998, Sullivan’s wife, Patricia, had been given a kidney and pancreas transplant, having suffered from severe diabetes all her life.

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For one week, Sullivan said, she had finally been able to live without taking insulin. But the pancreas transplant failed, and it had to be removed. A year later, in 1999, Patricia passed away after lapsing into a coma. She was 36.

When Patricia was declared brain dead, Sullivan was so moved by the experience that he sat down with hhis wife’s family and they agreed that her organs that could be used to help others should be donated.

“Trish was on a respirator. Her heart was still pumping, and they could use her lungs, her heart, her liver. And her youngest brother said, ‘Isn’t this what we’d want if one of us needed a transplant?’ And a 51-year-old guy in Manhattan got her liver,” Sullivan said.

“When Josh took sick, those word came back to me,” he recalled, having faced the situation in reverse, where suddenly his son desperately needed a new heart.

Last week was National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week, an occasion that Sullivan used to speak out about the desperate need for more organ donors in the U.S.

There is a chronic shortage of organs available in the New York area, according to the New York Organ Donor Network. The Network’s CEO and President, Elaine Berg, affirmed what Sullivan had to say.

Out of 68,000 hospital deaths in the region last year, Berg said, only 650 could have been organ donors if they had made the necessary arrangements before their deaths. Instead, with 8,000 New York-resident people needing transplants of various kinds, only 199 donors were actually available in 2001.

“More than half [of the patients] need kidneys,” she said, “and second most-needed are livers, then hearts and then pancreases. Thirteen, 14 people die everyday, on the waiting list for a transplant.”

Both Berg and Sullivan are passionate about the need for people to consider donating their organs. The most obvious way to start, said Berg, was to check the box on the back of one’s driver’s license — many donors are victims of car accidents who have suffered irreversible head injuries.

“Most importantly,” said Berg, “is to tell your family. You could lose that license or forget to sign it. In order to be an organ donor you actually have to be in hospital on a respirator. And your family needs to know your wishes at that point.”

Some tissues can be recovered from bodies where the heart has stopped beating up to 24 hours, such as tissue from eyes, skin, bone and heart valves. But organs such as livers, hearts, kidneys and pancreases need to come from the bodies of people who are still technically alive but brain dead.

It was three years after Patricia Sullivan had died that Brendan Sullivan was taking their three children to Yankee Stadium.

“Josh had trouble walking up the first ramp at the stadium,” he said. “It was June 1. He was just having trouble breathing.”

Visits to the doctor brought inconclusive diagnoses of asthma, but Josh’s breathing stayed labored, “as if he’d just run a marathon,” said Sullivan.

Finally, he insisted that the doctor listen to Josh’s heart.

“He said, “wow, we’ve got a problem,’ ” Sullivan said. “His heart was nearly gone.” The eventual diagnosis: a rare and deadly virus had all but destroyed the boy’s heart.

Rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, Josh was put on a ventilator and shot to the top of the list of people waiting on heart transplants.

Sullivan, a straight-talking cop, remembers saying despairingly to his sister, “I don’t need this,” but remarkably, a donor came up within a few days.

“A 19-year-old in Vermont wasn’t wearing his seatbelt,” Sullivan said simply. “His family agreed that his heart could be used. And Josh’s heart was so enlarged by this stage, that the doctors said he could easily be fitted with a young adult’s heart.”

Elaine Berg confirmed how lucky the Sullivans had been.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she said, “and I’ve heard religious leaders saying that organ donors must be chosen, because they are so few in number, and they give the gift of life.”

Out of a family’s tragedy in Vermont, Josh was given the gift of life. The experience has made Sullivan something of a crusader for the cause of organ donation. His police work is in the 41st precinct, considered one of the city’s most dangerous, the precinct of “Fort Apache” fame. He regularly asks his colleagues if they have made arrangements to donate their organs should anything ever happen to them.

“They’re like, ‘what?’ And it takes a little explaining. But my experience is enough to convince them,” he said. “Some people think, ‘I was born with it, I should die with it.’ But you could help someone else live.”

Berg said that the most common objection to organ donation is an odd one — many people think that their religion prohibits it.

“The reality is, every major religion is very supportive of organ donation,” Berg said. “Cardinal Egan wrote an article recently about it for a magazine. I could not have written a more positive article myself.

“People also have the belief that if they sign the donor card, they won’t get proper medical attention. That is absolutely not true.”

Sullivan’s son is doing well. “He’s only taking 26 pills a day,” said Sullivan, speaking about the regime of immune system suppressants that transplant patients have to take to ward of rejection of the organ. But there is hope that one day Josh Sullivan will only have to take one or two pills a day — and his doctors expect him to live a normal lifespan.

“The thing that sucks, is that someone else’s kid had to die,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan himself has made the commitment a long time ago, to donate all of his organs should the occasion arise.

“I saw bumper stickers at Columbia Hospital,” he said. “They read, ‘Heaven doesn’t need organs, but God knows, we need ’em down here.’ That hit home.

“I have a funny sense of humor. I told my sister, ‘If I die, use everything. Have a fire sale.’ ”

Further information on organ donation can be found at (800) GIFT-4NY or on the Internet at: www.nyodn.org.

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