published Friday, April 4th, 2014

Erlanger honors organ donors for saving 145 lives

Erlanger President & CEO Kevin M. Spiegel, left, introduces himself to the Johnson family, Elle, Sherry and Lynn (from left), during a flag raising ceremony recognizing Donor Awareness Month.
Erlanger President & CEO Kevin M. Spiegel, left, introduces himself to the Johnson family, Elle, Sherry and Lynn (from left), during a flag raising ceremony recognizing Donor Awareness Month.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Though it has been nearly three years since Kevin Yates was killed in a car crash involving a drunken driver, his heart lives on.

Because Kevin signed an organ donor's card two years before his death, his heart beats inside the chest of Melvin Ellis, a 51-year-old Memphis man.

In recognition of Donor Awareness Month and to honor the 36 Erlanger patients who saved 145 lives through organ donations in 2013, Erlanger hospital raised a "Donate Life" flag in the hospital courtyard Thursday.

Kevin's mother Tiki Finlayson shared her son's story at the commemoration before an organ recipient told of his life-saving operation.

More than 120,000 people in the United States are waiting for life-saving organ transplants. At least 2,600 of those live in Tennessee, according to information from Erlanger.

Kevin would have been 28 on Wednesday.

Not only did his decision to be an organ donor save a man on the other side of the state, but his liver saved a 72-year-old man and each of his kidneys went to men in their late 40s.

"When the time came and we were presented with that decision, I knew that Kevin would want to give everything that he possibly could because he was such a giving person," Finlayson said. "So we made those decisions, and it was one of the best decisions Kevin could've made."

The first time Finlayson and Ellis met, Finlayson listened to her son's heart in Ellis' chest with a stethoscope. The two maintain a close relationship through calls, text messages and the occasional visit.

"It gave me a joy to know that Kevin had given this man life and that Kevin was still accomplishing things through this wonderful man," Finlayson said. "It was amazing to have that connection."

Lynn Johnson shared his experience as an organ recipient. He does not know the family of the man who donated a kidney to him; all he knows is that he was a 28-year-old welder who was obviously compassionate.

Johnson, diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, received the kidney at Erlanger in January 2013.

"I named my kidney Eric," said Johnson, a Dunlap, Tenn., resident. "And Eric and I are doing just great."

Johnson praised his family and community for their support before and throughout the transplant and added that his care was top-notch.

Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel said the flag and the ceremony show the hospital's commitment to life.

"It really signifies that myself and all the employees and everyone in the community should embrace life and they should embrace it by signing a donor card and embrace it by passing life on to one of their neighbors," he said.

Johnson agreed.

"It's something you can give someone," he said, "that they cannot buy."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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