While Letcher County has been last among Kentucky’s 120 counties in the percentage of residents volunteering to become organ donors, that number appears to be changing in the wake of the recent death of 21-year-old organ donor Jacob Lucas.
As of Tuesday, 24 Letcher County residents had joined the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry after learning that Lucas, who was killed in a traffic accident in Clay County August 18, has helped bring a better life to several others who may have died too soon themselves had Lucas not left them his heart, kidneys, liver and other organs.
“To give a gift of life to someone else, what a legacy,” said Jenny Miller Jones, director of education with Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates, an independent, nonprofit organ and tissue procurement agency.
After Lucas, a native of Thornton, was pronounced dead at the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington from injuries sustained in the wreck on the Hal Roger Parkway, plans were quickly made to have his heart surgically implanted into a 23-year-old Perry County woman last Tuesday. Organs donated by Lucas have been made available to at least five other people as well, including children.
Debra Lucas, Jacob Lucas’s aunt, said Jacob’s liver, pancreas and small intestine were also donated. His kidneys were donated to pediatric patients.
Letcher Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Nichols said that since people have learned about Jacob being an organ donor, many have called the clerk’s office to ask about organ donation.
“We’ve had several inquiries,” said Nichols. “It made people aware.”
Since August 18, 10 Letcher County residents have signed the donor registry while renewing driver’s licenses, said Deputy Letcher Circuit Clerk Gertrude Maggard. Four other people joined the donor registry by filling out a form that is available in the driver’s license office in the Letcher County Courthouse. Nine other Letcher County residents have registered online at www.donatelifeky.org, said Shelley Snyder, executive director of Kentucky Circuit Court Clerks’ Trust For Life.
“There have been more who have changed their minds since this happened,” said Maggard.
When Lucas joined the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry when he got his driver’s license at 16. He had been interested in becoming a donor since learning the story of how his grandfather Dan Lucas, a disabled coal miner from Thornton, is alive today thanks to a heart transplant operation he underwent in Cincinnati nearly 20 years ago.
Jones said even though people sign the back of a driver’s license giving intent to donate organs, individuals still need to have their wishes documented on the donor registry. This can be done by obtaining a form from the driver’s license department of the circuit court clerk’s office or by updating information at www.donatelifeky.com.
“Being a registered donor on the Kentucky Donor Registry is extremely beneficial to a family, as that allows them to truly know the wishes of their loved one,” said Jones.”
Of the 120 counties in Kentucky, Letcher County has the lowest percentage of residents who have joined the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry. As of Monday evening, 1,111 Letcher County residents — or 5.8 percent of the population — have signed the donor registry.
“There’s just not enough people saying yes,” said Jones. “We’ve got some work to do.
At 76.3 percent, Clark County has the highest percentage among Kentucky counties, meaning 20,784 residents out of 27,244 have signed up. Oldham County has a percentage of 65.8, while 58.5 percent of Woodford County residents have joined the donor registry. The state average is 40 percent.
Nearly 29,000 successful organ transplants were performed in the U.S. in 2012, according to www.donatelifeky.org, and twice as many organ transplants could have been performed if more people were organ donors.
Jones said there is no change in appearance of a body after organs are harvested and said the custom of an open casket funeral preferred by many can still be observed.
Organ donors are rare because only those who are declared brain dead are eligible and brain deaths total only about one percent of annual deaths nationwide, according to the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates website .
Snyder said that by joining the donor registry, a person is saying, “If I could save a life when I’m gone, I would.”
“I’m not sure why people don’t join the registry,” said Snyder. “It’s such a gift of life.”
Jacob Lucas had spent the last year living with his father Mitchell Lucas in Russell Springs while he attended lineman school in Somerset. He was on his way from Russell County to Letcher County around 5 p.m. on August 16 when he drove around a blind curve and hit an old Peterbilt tow truck that was stopped near a bridge construction site near Manchester.
Debra Lucas said more than 900 people attended a visitation for Jacob at the Millstone Missionary Baptist Church last Friday evening and about 600 people attended his funeral on Saturday at the church.
“We were just amazed at the people,” Mrs. Lucas said. “It was packed. It was amazing.”
Jacob’s heart is now working for Ariana Sumner, of Happy, who had been in the intensive care unit at the University of Kentucky hospital since April 26 waiting for a new heart. Ariana had been suffering from the heart muscle deterioration disease cardiomyopathy, which resulted in her daughter, Baleigh Jayne, being stillborn in February. The disease caused Ariana to suffer a stroke and resulted in her being placed on life support numerous times. She completely lost her speech at one point.
Miss Sumner is the girlfriend of Letcher County native Travis Sturgill, who reported to friends and acquaintances through the social media site Facebook last week that Ariana’s surgery went well.
Jacob’s family had seen Miss Sumner being interviewed on television about her condition and asked that his heart be given to her if possible. Such a request can be accommodated in some circumstances, said Jones.
“If a family knows someone on the waiting list, they can direct the donation of a particular organ to a specified individual on the waiting list, but only if the organ donation is compatible,” she said. “There are factors such as blood type, tissue type and body composition, such as comparable weight and height, that must be compatible for the directed donation to take place.”
More than 120,000 individuals in the United States are on a life-saving transplant list and more than 900 of those are Kentuckians, according to Jones.
“Eighteen people on that list die every day due to the lack of people donating organs,” said Jones. “One organ and tissue donor can save or enhance the lives of up to 50 individuals.”
Transplantable issues include skin, corneas, bone, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, saphenous veins and heart valves.
Each year nearly 450,000 Americans are treated with transplanted tendon, bone and ligament tissue and about 50,000 cornea transplants are performed, according to www.donatelifeky.org.
Donors range in age from newborn to elderly. Jones said if an individual thinks he or she is too old or isn’t healthy enough to be a donor, think again.
“Don’t rule yourself out,” said Jones. “We really encourage people to not rule themselves out.”
In fact, the Courier-Journal of Louisville reported in 2012 that people older than 50 are the largest group of organ donors, according to organdonor.gov.
According the Courier- Journal’s report, 32 percent of donors were 50 and older in 2011, but 60 percent of all transplant recipients were in that age group. Also, 64 percent of people on the national waiting list were 50 and older.
A transplant surgeon at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Dr. Michael Marvin, told the Courier-Journal: “I’ve used 90-year-old livers in the past when I was in New York. … So it would be really important to emphasize to the general population that even those who are older than age 50 could still absolutely donate lifesaving organs.”
Visitations for Jacob Lucas were held in Russell Springs on Aug. 21 and in Millstone on Aug. 23. Burial was in the Thornton Cemetery. Letcher Funeral Home had charge of arrangements.
Jacob was a member of Bethel Baptist Church.
In addition to his father, He is survived by his mother, Wendy Wright Gibson of Thornton; stepmother Kim Lucas of Russell Springs; stepfather Ben Gibson of Thornton; two sisters, Hannah Lucas and Rachel Lucas, both of Thornton; and two stepbrothers, Tyler Stapp and Trevor Stapp, both of Russell Springs.
Debra Lucas said some people have approached the Lucas family about having an organ donor drive and an organ donor awareness walk in memory of Jacob.
Maggard, representing the circuit clerk’s office, will have a table set up at the Whitesburg Bike Nite on September 21 with organ donor registry forms.