Six Years Running: Marathon Team Races To Raise Organ Donation Awareness

May 25, 2017

They range in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-sixties. Their ranks include teachers, physicians, administrators and a former state commissioner. 

Together, they make up the team Spare Parts 6 in this year’s Vermont City Marathon, and they are running for a cause: to raise awareness of organ and tissue donation throughout the state.

The five relay members — Dr. Harry Chen, Dawn Bissonnette, Shaina Kaye, Dr. Bridgett Marroquin and Jean DeMaroney — are part of the Transplant Donor Network (TDN), which is affiliated with the University of Vermont Medical Center. Bissonnette and DeMaroney are transplant recipients. The team wears bright fluorescent yellow shirts with “Donate Life” emblazoned across the front, and it’s the sixth year a TDN group has run the relay.

“This is my first time being on the team, and it is such a cool opportunity to run for this cause,” said Kaye, a senior hospital and community relations specialist for the Center for Donation and Transplant in Albany, New York. “I work with many donor families and transplant recipients, and they are here because somebody said yes. It’s the circle of life — one decision can have such a huge impact.”

This will be Bissonnette’s third time on the team, and she holds a place of honor — if she’s not at the top of the list, she is at least in the conversation for the longest-living kidney transplant recipient, at 44 years.

Bissonnette, a second grade teacher in Colchester and a grandmother, was 16 years old in 1973 when chronic kidney infections created so much damage and scar tissue that both her kidneys were reduced to 10 percent functionality. Without a transplant, she had perhaps a year to live. Her older sister gave one of her kidneys in one of the first surgeries of this kind at UVM.

“I take every day and enjoy it,” Bissonnette said. “I wanted to give something back. “It’s important people are aware of the difference they can make. Look what it’s done for me.”

Harry Chen recently stepped down as Vermont’s health commissioner. This will be the third time he has run the final leg for the TDN team.

“I get all the glory,” Chen joked. “But it’s a special bond that’s created for all of us involved with organ donation.”

Chen’s experience as an emergency room doctor and as a member of the Vermont Legislature has made this issue very personal.

“I would see very tragic things happen [in the ER], but once in a while this process would happen where you took tragedy and made it something wonderful,” he said. “That spoke to me.”

"What we try to do is to encourage people to have a discussion and educate them on what it actually means to be an organ donor." — Jennifer DeMaroney, member of Spare Parts 6

Marroquin is an anesthesiologist who participates in organ recipient surgeries and is married to Dr. Carlos Marroquin, who is the head of organ transplant surgery at UVMMC.

“I sort of feel as if I cheated to get on the team because I’m not a donor or a recipient,” said Marroquin, who has run full and half marathons and is on the TDN team for the second time. “But I was honored to be asked and be able to show my support for the community, my husband and the transplant community.”

DeMaroney, who works in the organ procurement coordinating office at UVMMC, has received cornea transplants in both eyes. The first came in 1994 when she was a senior at South Burlington High School, the second when she was junior at UVM. With corrective lenses, she now has 20-20 vision.

“What we try to do is to encourage people to have a discussion and educate them on what it actually means to be an organ donor,” said DeMaroney, a 14-time veteran of the VCM and a multiple-time member of the TDN relay team. “We recognize that this is not for everyone, but we explain, we reassure what a good thing this is.”

One of the major forces behind the push to increase the number of Vermont organ donors is Jim Carter, the former longtime Winooski teacher and baseball coach. His daughter Andrea donated both corneas, both kidneys, her heart and her liver in 1990 after an automobile accident left her brain dead at age 17.

Andrea was a front seat passenger in a car traveling 15 miles an hour on a road less than a mile from the Carters' home in Jericho. But her seat belt was broken and when the car went off the road she suffered irreversible head trauma.

Since then, Jim Carter has made more than 2,500 presentations to schools, civic groups and associations around the state and region. The first part of his hour-long talk emphasizes the importance of seat belts. The second half stresses the impact of organ donation and the importance of speaking with loved ones about how you feel about the issue, something the Carters had never done with Andrea.

“She was 17 years old, and that wasn’t something you talked about back then,” Carter said. “You talked about your boyfriend or the basketball game or going to prom next week.”

There was a week span between Andrea’s accident and when she donated her organs and corneas. During that period a social worker approached Carter and his wife, Susan, about the possibility of organ donation. The Carters spoke with their three other children.

“She hadn’t made her wishes known to us, but we all felt this was something Andrea would want,” Carter said. “She would want to give back. I don’t say that Andrea passed away, she passed on.”

Carter’s personal history resonates with those involved with TDN, particularly those running the marathon.

“I love listening to Jim — he is such a wonderful teacher,” DeMaroney said. “We can’t fix the tragedy and we wish we never had to have these conversations. You can never make up for the death of a loved one, but moving forward, the ones who say yes [to donation] know they were able to make something good happen.”

At his presentations, Carter hands out a short questionnaire that touches on seat belts and raising the idea of being an organ donor.

“When I taught social studies 30 years ago and would talk about organ donation as a public issue, the kids thought it was gross,” he said. “Now it’s like half the class raises their hands when I ask if [they have the heart symbol] on their driver’s license that identifies an organ donor.”

The connection with the Department of Motor Vehicles has been central to the exponential growth in the number of organ donors over the last four years. When Harry Chen was health commissioner, he was dismayed to find that less than 5 percent of Vermonters were organ donors.

“We had a really low rate and that didn’t fit my perception of who I thought Vermonters were or what their values were,” Chen said.

Working with the DMV, the TDN helped make organ donation and option on the license application. If someone becomes a donor, he or she automatically remains one at every renewal. The number of Vermonters who are now donors has swelled to more than 50 percent of those of driving age — 284,429. Of that total, 97 percent have done so through the DMV.

“With this system now in place we can go to the next level,” Chen said. “We’ve really been able to raise the awareness of the choice you have.”

The remaining 3 percent of organ donors have signed on through the website.

“We’re not trying to hard sell anyone — this is a very personal choice,” Carter said. “But it’s amazing the way the numbers of climbed. We just have to keep climbing.”