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Kentucky by Heart: State organ donation program brings sense of hope to times of tragedy

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Back in 1992, Arthur “Whitey” Walson of Winchester lost a cousin who was waiting for a heart transplant. The whole episode touched him deeply, and with a sense of hope he figured his position as Circuit Clerk of Clark County might provide a public forum for him to do something proactive. He wanted to help others seeking transplants to see a better fate, and their loved ones to avoid the pain of loss.

Today, folks all over the state are appreciative of the leadership of Walson, now deceased, as he led in the effort to form the Kentucky Circuit Court Clerks’ Trust for Life donor program—the first like it in the nation. It’s become a Godsend for many, along with being an opportunity for citizens to help those in need of organ transplants.

Trust for Life (TFL) then established the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry in 2006, and about 98 percent of the 1.4 million Kentuckians added to the registry originate from the work of clerks all around the state.


The effort to match organ donors with those in need has spawned many stories of success. Melissa Corman, Versailles, supplied a wonderful example. Her son, Zac, signed onto the registry in 2008 when renewing his drivers’ license. That same year, he received massive head injuries in a car accident.

“Within 24 hours, and many tests, he was declared brain dead,” said Melissa, “and we were made aware that he was on the Donor Registry. His brother remembered him talking about being a donor and it helped us to know that he had made the decision himself. It was one less decision we had to make when we were in shock and disbelief.”

Zac’s gesture, noted Melissa, saved five lives in five different states, including the transplant of his heart to a person at Jewish Hospital in Kentucky. Though the pain of Zac’s untimely death will always be with Melissa, she’s been buoyed emotionally by some things that have happened in the aftermath. Her son’s responsible actions in 2008 bring a certain amount of joy today.

“We learned that Zac had been an advocate for organ donation when several of his friends approached us at the funeral visitation and showed us their license and said he had encouraged them to sign up,” she said.

Another boost for Melissa came in 2013 when a support organization called Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA) hired her as a family support liaison. She previously worked tirelessly as a volunteer there when introduced to the group after Zac’s death. Referring to her “soul sisters” she has befriended with KODA, she noted that they “helped me heal over the years and ultimately provided my livelihood.”

On the Trust for Life web site, there are more accounts of triumph from different counties as people have offered their organs to save others’ lives. Shelley Snyder shared this compelling personal story of a mother in Woodford County.

“My son, Ryan, died from a gunshot wound to the head that day,” she said. “It made no sense to me; the death of my child. I wanted to do something that did make sense, something good and something that would bring a sense of hope to this tragedy. Organ donation was my answer.”

Though Ryan passed on, his mother holds tightly to the good his organ donations have done.

“Ryan was the perfect donor; young, healthy, and no damage to his major organs from his injury,” she said, “allowing all of his organs available for transplantation. Ryan’s heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas were donated to give new life to those so desperate for a second chance.

“Organ donation has been ‘heart healing’ for me. Ryan has provided a bridge from me to his recipients; my extended family. Ryan’s legacy lives on; a legacy that gives hope and new life.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

A few years ago, I profiled Fanestia Massey’s story of losing her teenage son, Preston, to an auto accident while driving home from a “Project Graduation” event at western Kentucky’s Caldwell County High School, in Princeton. Through Fanestia’s encouragement, Preston had his name on the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry and that fact proved to be an extraordinary plus for many still alive. From an email note to Massey from Sandy Hickey, representing Kentucky Trust for Life, these nuggets of positive information provide some sense of purpose for Preston’s death:

“Preston’s donation consisted of orthopedic tissues, which are used to hasten recovery in individuals suffering from bone or spine disease or injury. Many bone grafts can be generated from one tissue donor. In the case of Preston’s gift, our donation records indicate the creation of seventy-five bone grafts which are used to perform reconstructive surgery, spinal fusions, and oral surgery.

“Our records also indicate that all of these grafts have been distributed for surgical procedures that have enhanced the lives of sixty-two patients thus far. These grafts were distributed to Louisiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, South Carolina, Arizona, Alabama, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, West Virginia, Kentucky and a medical facility in Turkey. His corneas went to a person in Kentucky and the other in Indiana.”

So…how easy is it to become an organ donor? I talked to the Madison County Circuit Court Clerk Darlene Snyder about it.

“When people come into our office to renew their driver’s license,” she said, “we are by law required to ask them certain questions. The two in particular are: ‘Would you like to join the Kentucky Organ Donor registry and would you like to donate $1 to the Kentucky Organ Donor program?’ At that point, if they say yes, or even no, we enter y or n.”

Darlene also noted that though it seldom happens, a person who asks the Circuit Clerk Office about being a donor unrelated to a license renewal leads her office workers to refer the person to the Kentucky Donor Registry.

For further information about this truly important endeavor, check out the Trust for Life and Kentucky Organ Donor Registry.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart series on KyForward, click here.

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