Sarasota – (February 9, 2021) – Since 1998, National Donor Day coincides with Valentine’s Day to bring hope to the 107,000 individuals on the national transplant waiting list, to celebrate renewed life given by generous organ and tissue donors and their families, highlight transplant recipients who have received an organ or tissue transplant and serve as a call to action encouraging others to sign up to save lives as organ and tissue donors.
Gary Rosenbaum, a resident from Venice, received a lifesaving heart transplant, which gives him an extra reason to celebrate life this February 14th. Gary, a 56-year-old successful businessman, led a relatively normal life working in Columbia, Maryland, until he started experiencing some health issues. “I was having difficulty breathing. I told my wife, Susan, that I was having trouble taking the trash can down our long driveway,” says Gary. A visit to a cardiologist revealed part of Gary’s heart was enlarged and he was diagnosed with right side heart failure, an unusual condition for someone his age.
After six months of seeing various doctors and trying different treatments Gary was told he would eventually need a heart transplant to survive. “I had signed up to be a donor on my license, but it hit home for me that now I would be the one who needed a transplant. It was a real wakeup call that being an organ donor meant something.” Gary, who had an internal defibrillator placed to keep his own heart beating as long as possible, remembers, “It kept me going for five years. Each year it got progressively worse. I couldn’t work anymore.” His health declined, Gary was admitted to the hospital and listed on the national transplant waiting list. While there, Gary met a volunteer mentor, Janet, who shared that she had received a heart transplant ten years prior and talked about competing in the National Transplant Games of America as well as the World Transplant Games. “She showed me her pictures and medals she had won. I told her ‘if I survive this, I’ll think about it’. She said, ‘don’t tell me “if”, you are going to survive this’.”
On Christmas Eve, 2015 Gary found out a heart had been located for him. After sixty-five days of waiting, Gary received a lifesaving heart transplant on Christmas Day. With recovery and physical therapy, Gary began to regain strength , and he and Susan relocated to Florida. Remembering his mentor, Janet, and the transplant games Gary recalls, “I got on my bike and I started training. My first international game was 2017 in Malaga, Spain. It was an eye-opening experience. The games are a way to promote organ donation and to recognize organ donors and their families. I learned a lot.” To date Gary, together with Janet, has attended three transplant games, one in the U.S. and two internationally, winning multiple medals in cycling and track and field.
Gary wrote a letter to his donor family soon after his transplant, to share his heartfelt appreciation for his second chance at life, but did not hear back. While at one of the games Gary was encouraged by a donor father to keep writing, so he did. Each year Gary put pen to paper to give thanks to his donor family for the gift of life. After three years, Gary’s donor family wrote him back. “I am fortunate that I now have contact with my donor family through anonymous letters. My heart donor, Anthony, had a strong heart because it has let me win several medals and I bike like a maniac. It has a lot of love in it,” said Gary. Anthony’s mother shared that knowing Gary is doing well has helped her in the grieving process of her son’s passing and asked if he would write to one of Anthony’s sons who was also struggling with the loss. Of course, Gary did, and continues to write his donor family with hopes to meet them one day.
In honor of National Donor Day, Gary, who volunteers to tell his story throughout his community, encourages people to share life and love by registering to become organ and tissue donors at www.DonateLifeFlorida.org. “Every day is donor day to me. It means that organ donors like mine, Anthony, give recipients like me the greatest gift that anyone could ever give someone and that is the gift of life,” said Gary.
LifeLink of Florida is the federally designated, non-profit community service organization dedicated to the recovery of organs and tissues for transplantation in west and southwest Florida. LifeLink can be of assistance with scheduling virtual interviews or webinar presentations to media outlets, local schools, civic groups and businesses on the importance of donation; for more information on LifeLink, or to register as an organ and tissue donor, visit www.LifeLinkFoundation.org.