At SD Transplant Games, organ donor families are encouraged by healthy recipients

Ashton Eden, Jen Eden and Chris Eden (left to right) with father Tim behind the march at the Transplant Games parade.  Photo by Chris Stone
Ashton Eden, Jen Eden and Chris Eden (left to right) with father Tim (behind Chris) march in the Transplant Games parade. Photo by Chris Stone

Talking about death is never easy. And it’s overwhelming to think about donating a loved one’s organs when you’re praying they won’t make it, despite the prognosis.

“Organ donation shouldn’t be a taboo subject,” said Jen Eden, whose son Blake donated a liver and kidneys in 2015 after a car accident. “That has to be the priority”

Eden is among thousands gathered in San Diego for the Transplant Games, and they have one request in common: please discuss your willingness to be a donor with your family in advance.

Transplant recipients, living donors, families of deceased donors, and supporters participate in sporting events and gratitude and healing activities at the San Diego Convention Center and local venues.

Here are some of their stories.

Wouldn’t think twice

Of course, when her three sons were growing up, organ donation wasn’t something Eden thought about.

Blake Eden. Courtesy photo of the family

Blake had listed himself as a donor on his DMV license.

“He said yes — that’s all we needed to know,” said the Orlando, Florida mom.

When approached at the hospital about organ donation, she was initially reluctant because she still clung to hope that her 21-year-old son would survive.

“Once we realized the severity of his head injury, we knew it was the right thing to do,” Eden said. “And we knew just because he couldn’t continue, doesn’t mean someone else can’t.”

And the family thought that if he knew what kind of person Blake was, he wouldn’t have thought twice about donating his organs, she said, describing her son as someone who would drop everything to help a friend.

A quilt square honors Blake Eden, whose organs saved the lives of others. EZ was a nickname Blake got from his friends.

So on Saturday morning, Eden, her husband Tim and their sons Chris and Ashton carried the banner of the donor family at the Transplant Games parade on Saturday.

“It’s about honoring our son and seeing how the recipients can live their lives and continue their journey,” she said of Blake, a “fool” who always wanted to make people laugh.

The Edens brought a quilt square with photos of Blake to add to the national quilt promoting donations.

Save five lives

Jen Jova, who lost her 17-year-old son Andrew after he suffered a brain injury in a car accident, spoke about how his organ donations have saved lives.

He saved five lives and improved about 48 others through tissue donation, the New Jersey mother said.

Jen Jova (left) and Paul Jova (wearing Liberty crown) march in the Transplant Games parade. Photo by Chris Stone

Andrew suffered a head injury in a car accident in 2008 and lived just two days longer. Although he was able to speak to his parents on the night of the accident, his brain swelled and later doctors found no brain activity.

Andrew’s kidneys were given to two people, his liver to another. One man got both lungs and another got Andrew’s heart.

Andrew Jova, whose organs saved many lives after his death in a car accident. Courtesy photo of the family

Jova said she and her husband Paul met Andrew’s heart recipient, who lived another 11 years during which he saw the birth of his grandchildren.

“And you know, he lived this amazing life,” Jova said in a phone interview.

Andrew was one of the deceased donors honored with a paddling trip in La Jolla on Sunday morning.

“That paddling out was almost life-changing for me,” said Jova of Ocean Grove, New Jersey. “It was amazing, the people we spoke to and the stories we heard, you know. So basically we’re doing everything we can to celebrate and remember Andrew.”

Team Andrew has raised $100,000 through fundraisers for the New Jersey Sharing Network for organ procurement over time.

Of course, Jova said she never thought she would go on this journey with recipients and donors, but it gave her a sense of peace because she understood what the donations mean to survivors.

The games show donor families that thanks to organ donation, one can live a normal life, she said.

Donate? Why not?

JoAnne Gipson noticed that a colleague at the University of Nevada in Reno was not doing well. The colleague, Kiran Gandhi, was about to start kidney dialysis and was looking for a living donor.

None of her family members were a match.

“She’s a nice person, so why not?” Gipson recalled the UC San Diego swim spot.

They found out on Gandhi’s birthday that Gipson was a match.

“It was the best birthday present I could give her,” said Gipson. And 15 years later, they’re both doing well.

Liam Reed, 6, with the SoCal team, competes in a children’s sprint race at UCSD. Photo by Chris Stone

“As a living donor, I get awards from recipients,” she said. “But to me they are the most amazing story.”

Gipson, 66, spoke Monday as she awaited her Tuesday track and field events: 100-meter dash, 200, 400, 1500 and shot put.

“People have had an organ for 25 years,” she said. “Wow. I want my recipient to be like that too. Just to see these people out here. They don’t care what they look like — what shape, size, ability. They’re here. It’s so cool.”

Donation to brother son

Gipson’s Nevada teammate June Monroe is also a living donor. In 2005, Monroe gave her brother Brian a kidney.

Monroe’s father had donated one of his kidneys to her younger brother, whose kidney failed when he was 10 years old.

“I think watching my dad go through the process helped me a little bit to feel more comfortable about moving on and making a decision…to donate to my brother,” said Monroe, an assistant principal at a Nevada elementary school .

Brian died of complications from medical complications in 2014, but Monroe has been involved with the Nevada Donor Network ever since.

She called the Donate Life network “wonderful” and supported everyone.

“It’s the fellowship and meeting of so many wonderful people who just support each other,” she said. “It’s like a second family.”

Monroe won a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke on Monday.

Dead gets a chance at life

Kevin Slifka, 50, of Pleasant Hills, Iowa, also took the call from a family member.

His sister-in-law’s son was born with a kidney that failed in 2013.

“Cooper needed a chance at life,” Slifka said. “I was the third person to go through the tests. And he looked pretty slim” for an almost 2-year-old.

Slifka said he’s had multiple surgeries in his life, “so it really wasn’t for me to put myself out there to help him. He was told he would not walk, would not crawl, would eat alone, and would go to public school.”

Dakota Watson, 20, of Washougal, Washington, donated a kidney in 2017. Photo by Chris Stone

But since the transplant, the boy himself has competed in the 2016 Transplant Games,” he ran the 25-meter dash.

“He goes to public school, he eats by himself, and he does everything — everything a normal kid would do. Yes, it’s incredible,” concluded Slifka.

Games will continue through Wednesday at the San Diego Convention Center. Visit TransplantGamesofAmerica.org for more information.

Participants have competed in sports such as basketball, tennis, swimming, track and field, badminton, bowling, and pickleball.

Statistics from the National Donate Life Registry show that more than 110,000 people are on organ waiting lists. On average, 17 people die every day waiting for a transplant. More than 85% of waiting patients require a kidney.

In 2021, 41,354 transplants were performed. More than 800,000 organ donations have been made since 1988.

To donate money or learn how to become an organ donor, visit donatelife.net.

First of two parts. Next: Recipients share their stories.


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