Saving and Improving Lives: Vermont Marks Organ Donation Month

Families of organ donors and organ donation recipients celebrated the ultimate gift Friday

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Families of organ donors and organ transplant recipients shared emotional stories of loss and survival Friday, as Vermont marked Organ Donation Month.

"I was on my way to dying," recalled Lara Govendo, whose cystic fibrosis had left her in respiratory failure — needing oxygen 24/7. "My transplant surgeon said I didn't have a lot of time left."

That changed in 2017, Govendo told NECN and NBC10 Boston, when a double lung transplant left her full of gratitude to her organ donor.

"They're always in my thoughts," said Govendo, who lives near Burlington.

During a ceremony Friday in Montpelier, state and local officials proclaimed April Organ Donation Month in Vermont.

Currently, 57% of Vermonters have a little heart on their driver's licenses designating them as potential organ donors — that's higher than the national average, said New England Donor Services.

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, spoke at the proclamation ceremony.

"It's a relatively rare event, organ donation," Levine observed. "It's much more likely that you yourself would require a transplant than you would become a donor, but your willingness to donate life to others is crucial to bringing hope to those in need."

Levine predicted that the percentage of people willing to become organ donors after their deaths will steadily increase as more people hear stories of donors and recipients.

Bob Canfield of Hudson, Massachusetts, lost his wife, Suellen, to a brain aneurysm in 2001.

Friday, he became emotional reading a letter from a man who received a life-saving organ donation after Suellen's death.

"She's living through someone else," Canfield said in an interview with NECN and NBC10 Boston, adding that several people received Suellen's donations.

At the DMV, where most people make that pledge to donate if tragedy strikes, the issue is deeply personal to state DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli.

"I was able to honor, truly, his last wish," Minoli said of her husband, Michael, who died in late 2020 after a medical emergency caused him to crash his car.

The commissioner would learn Michael's eyes, skin, and other tissue were really able to improve recipients' lives.

"Our loved ones, when they are returned to us, they are heroes," Minoli said.

With more than 6,500 New Englanders on wait lists for organs — 106,000 nationally — advocates said they hope to see steady increases of sign-ups. More information on organ donation in New England is available on this website.

For Lara Govendo and her new lungs, the slogan "donate life" is no exaggeration. She now has a tattoo on her foot showing the date of her life-saving surgery.

"Now it's just incredible what I get to do," Govendo beamed. "I can hike mountains and go kayaking and bike and just go and adventure and not worry about getting sick and not bring a ton of oxygen with me or my breathing treatments — it's radical."

Govendo reiterated her deep appreciation to the organ donor and their family for the gift that saved her life and gave her such a high quality of life back.

"[It's] all thanks to my donor," the double lung transplant recipient said.

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