By Reg Green
Special to the City Sentinel
Phil Van Stavern was only five years old when his parents were told: “Phil will probably die as a child.” Blood had been found in his urine and, it turned out later, both his kidneys were diseased.
Van Stavern was a respected, long-time television journalist in Oklahoma City.
Saved by a transplanted kidney from his elder brother, Neil, 62, is the interim chief operating officer of LifeShare of Oklahoma, the organ recovery organization for the state of Oklahoma.
One of the most-respected members of the transplant community, he spends his life helping those who have the same need for a life-saving transplant that he had.
Now his story will be told to millions when he rides on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. His hope is that just by being there, along with other organ recipients from across the United States, people who have never thought about organ donation will see for themselves the power they have to save lives by simply saying yes.
“As a child and young man, I did much better than the doctors had expected and had a good career as a television medical reporter,” Phil says.
“But, at 38, I was shocked to discover my blood pressure was so high that it was almost off the chart.” Tests showed his kidneys were functioning at only 20 percent of normal and for months he spent 10 hours every night hooked up to a dialysis machine that laboriously cleaned out the toxins that his kidneys were unable to deal with.
By then he was divorced and was bringing up his two boys, Jeremy and Aaron. “After 10 hours on the machine, I would get up, get the boys off to school and go to work,” he says. “I didn’t want them to see me give up and I didn’t want to scare them, but it was exhausting.”
But it got worse and walking to meetings that should have taken a few minutes was now taking 45 minutes because he had to keep stopping for prolonged rests.
Unless he had a new kidney soon, he was told, he might have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It was then that Neil, in a tone that couldn’t be contradicted, said “I’m going to be your donor.”
He turned out to be an almost perfect match and on March 31, 1988 – like all recipients – Phil never forgets the date – one of Neil’s healthy kidneys replaced Phil’s diseased kidneys. “I felt better immediately,” he remembers. “Instead of the drag of daily life, the possibilities suddenly seemed limitless.”
A few years later he married again – he calls Barbara the love of his life — and joined LifeShare. “Every day I know that what I do or don’t do can affect whether people I’ve never met will live or die,” he says.
With one kidney, Neil too lives a healthy and busy life as a veterinarian in College Station, Texas, and feels his decision was one of the most fulfilling things he has ever done.
There is a postscript to the story. On Memorial Day this year, Phil’s grandson, Nick, a brilliant 13-year-old, was killed in a four-wheeler accident.
Despite their devastation, his parents, Jeremy and Cheryll Van Stavern, though unable to donate his organs, did donate tissue, such as bone and tendons, giving as many as 20 people a better life. “He would have thought that was very cool,” says Phil, his eyes filling with tears. He will ride in the Rose Parade sitting under a floral portrait of his beloved grandson.
To learn more about being an organ and tissue donor please go to www.lifeshareoklahoma.org
The author’s 7-year-old Nicholas was murdered during an 1994 attempted robbery while the family was vacationing in Italy. Their son’s organ were donated to seven Italians.