- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

DENVER (AP) - Before the grueling radiation and chemo that was the prelude to a liver transplant, before the tragic crash that produced a viable donor, before the 5½ hours of surgery that gave him a future, Wes Cook got ready to die.

Suddenly diagnosed with a rare form of inoperable cancer in the late fall of 2012, he was a 58-year-old maintenance man furiously writing down home-upkeep instructions for his wife. He pared down his life, got rid of some belongings and savored others, the Denver Post reported (https://dpo.st/1r6lLQq).

On an unseasonably warm winter day, he pulled his motorcycle out of the garage and went for one last ride.

“Just try and stand there in your life and think, ‘Everything is ending today,’” Cook says, recounting his mindset at the time. “All these things you’re thinking about are gone.”

And then, they weren’t gone at all.

A few months after his diagnosis, he received a lifesaving liver transplant from a man killed in a Denver-area motor vehicle crash.

In Colorado, more than two-thirds of those who obtain driver’s licenses or state ID cards designate themselves an organ donor when they get their documents - the second-highest rate in the country behind Alaska. That rate has been trending upward for the past decade.

In 2015, the donor number surpassed 900,000 statewide.

But successful transplants rely on a combination of circumstance and a viable medical match. As of April 15, Colorado’s waiting list of patients needing organ donation stood at 2,596, with the vast majority - 1,919 - waiting for kidneys.

At 620, the next highest demand is for a healthy liver.

In the early morning of May 25, 2013, a vehicle carrying three people on their way to work at a Littleton Jiffy Lube crashed into an unoccupied vehicle in an emergency lane along Interstate 70. All three eventually died, including 33-year-old passenger Cody Crosby, a former Army paratrooper who, like Cook, nurtured a passion for motorcycles.

When doctors said they could do nothing to save Crosby, his father suggested organ donation. Crosby, a gregarious practical joker remembered for his generosity, had always registered as a potential donor when he renewed his driver’s license.

“In my family, we all knew that was something that was just implied because of how we grew up,” says Diane Eckert, Cody’s sister. “He did it because of the kind of person he was.”

In addition to Cook, two other metro-area patients received Crosby’s kidneys and still more benefited from his heart valves and other tissue.

Many recipients traditionally honor their donors with tree plantings and other activities throughout April, says Andrea Smith, a spokeswoman for the Donor Alliance, the federally designated nonprofit for organ procurement in Colorado and most of Wyoming. Cook and Eckert dedicated a tree in Crosby’s memory earlier in April.

In some cases, such as with kidneys, living donors can offer one of theirs - usually to a relative or friend they know is a match. The term “altruistic living donors” denotes individuals who donate without knowing the recipient.

The donor registry that operates through the driver’s license office involves only donation after death. Donors can give a more specific explanation of their wishes, such as which organs to include or exclude, through a hard-copy registry form at a driver’s license office or online at donatelifecolorado.org.

Physically devastated by the prior radiation and chemotherapy when he entered the transplant surgery, Cook experienced a relatively rapid recovery and left the hospital within three days.

“They said don’t do anything for six weeks, but in two weeks I was out fixing the house,” he says. “As soon as I could lift my leg over, I snuck my bike out and went for a ride. My wife didn’t know whether to yell at me or smile.”

Given the option of contact between donor family and recipient, both chose to reach out, at first by letters submitted to a social worker. Cook started with a template provided by the Donor Alliance but eventually fell back on his own raw words.

“I felt obligated to tell them a little about me,” says Cook, now 61 and a facility manager for Southeast Christian Church in Parker. “I want these people to feel that a good person got this (liver). It makes you want to be a better person, to be worthy of that gift.”

He mentioned that after his diagnosis, he thought he’d taken his last motorcycle ride. That struck a chord with Crosby’s family.

Eventually, phone contact advanced to an invitation to get together. Cook figured it must be like meeting your birth parents for the first time. He couldn’t help staring.

“It’s not a meeting you can prepare yourself for,” says Cook. “Part of them is in you. I didn’t know how to react emotionally. I can see the look on their face. They’ve been through a horrible tragedy.”

But the desire to know how their tragedy left a positive imprint on the world propelled Crosby’s relatives forward. They eventually met with Cook as well as a recipient of Cody’s kidney.

“Our bad day happened to be a second chance for them,” says Eckert. “It was definitely a little awkward, but really exciting. My parents were happy to see the difference that Cody made. That a piece of him lives on is amazing, and brings lot of comfort to my family.”

Cook and Eckert sometimes speak to groups now on behalf of the Donor Alliance. At one presentation, Eckert offered him her brother’s heavy leather motorcycle jacket.

It fit perfectly.

“I wear it on every ride,” Cook says. “I wear it proudly.”


Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com

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