Before Jeff Orlowski, chief executive of LifeShare Transplant Donor Services of Oklahoma, moved his staff into their newly purchased and remodeled offices at 4705 NW Expressway in December, he worked with the designer to add some important finishing touches.
Some 25 excerpts from letters exchanged between families who donated organs of lost loved ones and the families whose loved ones received them adorn the walls throughout the 21,000-square-foot space.
“Everyone was so compassionate. God bless you all,” reads one quote from a donor family. Meanwhile, another, above the copier, reads, “It has brought our family great comfort and joy knowing that our sweet boy could assist your life.”
And from a recipient’s family, over the exit door, “Thank you, thank you, thank you … again and again, and again.”
Orlowski said the quotes remind him and his 77-member crew what they’re working for daily. “The more organs we transplant, the more lives we can save, and the more lives we save, the better we’re doing,” he said.
Since February 2012, when Orlowski moved here from upstate New York, he’s spearheaded several initiatives to help further that goal, including basing staff in transplant hospitals so they’re on site and immediately available to talk to families about organ donation, converting to electronic records, enhancing branding efforts toward better community awareness and moving into the new, roomier headquarters.
Last year, there were 90 organ donors and 450 tissue and bone donors.
From his office, which looks out on the seventh hole of Lake Hefner Golf Course, Orlowski sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I grew up in the heart of Kansas City, Kan.; three blocks from where my paternal grandparents landed when they immigrated from the German, formerly Polish region, of what most consider Prussia. I was the baby of four children, with two brothers 20 and 14 years older and a sister, who was 12 years older and died as an adult of Type I diabetes. My father worked 40 years as a pipe fitter for Phillips Petroleum, with two interrupting military stints as a marine: in combat in the Pacific during WWII and in California during the Korean War. When I was in kindergarten, my mother, to help pay for college for my middle brother, went to work as a ward clerk at Bethany Medical Center, where she worked 25 years.
Q: What were the highlights of your school days?
A: I played football and basketball through the eighth grade until I hurt the same knee in both sports. Between the injuries, and the fact I was only 5-foot-9-inches tall (still am) and couldn’t jump, I didn’t continue in either sport. I played golf on my high school team and played throughout college, with my father, who’d cover the course fees. I was invited to attend Sumner Academy magnet high school in Kansas City for the ninth through 12th grades. Of the 136 in my graduating class, 126 of us went on to college.
Q: And college?
A: I studied biology at the University of Kansas, with plans to go to medical school. From the time I was a junior in high school, I worked nights every other weekend as an orderly in the ER at the KU Medical Center, paying my tuition, while my parents covered room and board. By the time I graduated, I was disenchanted with med school, hearing from my resident and intern friends that I’d either have to work as a general practitioner in a small town in Kansas or specialize and go to work for Kaiser, who’d dictate which patients I’d see and how many. I continued working as an orderly for six to eight months following graduation, with revised plans to go on to profusionist school in San Diego, so I could run the heart-lung machine during heart surgeries.
Q: How’d you end up in the organ transplantation industry?
A: By accident. After my shift as a profusionist assistant one night, I ran into a surgery resident friend who shared that the Kansas City-based organ bank for whom his wife worked was hiring coordinators, and he thought it would be a good fit for me. I was engaged to my wife, a former respiratory therapist whom I met at KU Med Center, and figured I’d give it a try— versus go to profusionist school and live for three years on her salary alone. I’ve loved my 28 years in the organ donation industry. I’ve never looked back and wished I’d done something different.
Q: Where did you work before coming to Oklahoma?
A: I started as a donor coordinator in Kansas City, one of the original four transplant organizations, before joining an organization in my wife’s hometown of Denver, which led the nation in infant heart transplants. In 1995, I was recruited to Lubbock, and ultimately worked in Houston, where I moved from a supervisor to director level. In 2003, I had the opportunity to lead an organization in upstate New York, and was there nine years before coming here in February 2012. Over my 28 years in the industry, a lot has changed. Where transplants, mostly kidneys, once were considered science fiction and desperate surgeries, they today are just another procedure. Every day, there are an average of 75 transplants nationally, including liver, pancreas, heart and lung, and occasionally, intestines. Thanks to advancements in anti-rejection medications, more than 50 percent of recipients survive 10 years beyond transplants, and it’s not unreasonable to see patients, who are compliant with taking their anti-rejection meds, live 25 or 30 years after transplants.
Q: What are the biggest misperceptions about organ donation?
A: That it’s against their religion; every major religion has come out in support of organ donation. Secondly, many incorrectly believe that, if you agree to be an organ donor on your driver’s license or through the national registry, hospitals will let you die, so they can get your organs. There are so many safeguards against that. Plus, few hospitals do transplants. In Oklahoma, it’s only OU, including Children’s, and Integris in Oklahoma City, and St. John and St. Francis in Tulsa. Meanwhile, 65 Oklahomans last year died while waiting for transplants. Though 64 percent of Oklahomans are proclaimed organ donors, 80 percent of Oklahomans polled by Gallup say they’d donate. If we could get that additional 16 percent to sign up on the registry (lifeshareregistry.org), we could save those people on the waiting list. A single donor can save three or more lives, and as many as eight. If you elect organ donation on your driver’s license, on the registry or in an advance directive, it’s a binding gift of donation. Your family can’t override your decision.
•Position: LifeShare Transplant Donor Services of Oklahoma, chief executive
•Birth date and birthplace: Kansas City, Kan.; Oct. 10, 1963
•Family: wife, Lori; sons, Will, 21, a junior at the University of Kansas, and Ben, 19, a freshman at the University of Maryland
•Education: bachelor’s in biology, University of Kansas; master’s in business, Regis University
•Housing addition: Glenhurst
•Favorite read in the past decade: “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
•For fun: attending KU football and basketball games, oil painting, shooting pool (he’s got a pool room in his home) and collecting wine (he has some 100 bottles; mostly pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon)
•Bucket list: “I have a burning desire to visit the German, formerly Polish, region of Prussia from which my paternal grandparents immigrated.”