Anxious moments on the wait list for life

by | Oct 7, 2012 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

They gave him the news when he was 9. It was a Thursday. In a doctor’s office.

“You are a type 1 diabetic,” they said. His parents were taken aback. But all he could think was, “Can I still play my Little League game on Saturday?”

He is 35 now, and in some ways, for all he has endured – the constant needles, the endless blood tests, the epileptic seizures, and recently, the kidney failure that leaves him regularly attaching to a dialysis device – he is still looking forward. Still asking whether he’ll be able to play.

His name is Courtney Penn. He is one of more than 100,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant. He needs a kidney and a pancreas. With them, he has a good chance at a normal life.

Without them, the clock is ticking.

“They told me in March it was about an 18-month wait,” he says, “but it depends on who’s in front of you and who’s behind you. I try not to think about it. I think about how lucky I am to even have a chance.”

Lucky? If you hear the details of what Penn has endured, you would hardly use that adjective. He spent his childhood and teenage years endlessly pricking his finger or taking injections. The seizures he suffered kept him from ever getting a driver’s license.

Despite this, he went to college, become a teacher, married, had a son.

Then, last year, he and his wife were driving to see President Barack Obama speak at a university, when his leg swelled so large with fluid, he could press on it and leave an indention.

“Something’s really wrong,” he said.

‘The most selfless gifts’

His kidneys were malfunctioning. By September of last year, his blood was 20% toxic. He was put on dialysis, and now has a permanent tube in his abdomen, through which he flushes the poison with help of a device. He sleeps with it attached at night. This is all part of daily life.

Last March, he officially went on the organ donors list. His age is an advantage; the fact that he needs two organs is not.

“I try to tell my 5-year-old son as much as I can about my situation,” he says. “We talk about the transplant that might happen. He calls it ‘the big surgery.’ He keeps asking me, ‘When’s the big surgery coming?'”

Penn, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., (his mother was raised in Detroit) wants no special attention, no extra sympathy. He simply would like people to know how much good they can do if they decide to become an organ donor. One person could help up to 50 others with organs and tissue donation. Sadly, right now, the list of needy people far outpaces the list of donors.

“It’s one of the most selfless gifts,” says Penn, who signed up as a donor at 18. “It’s painless. Unless you have a religious reason not to, I would encourage people to at least consider it.”

A tragedy, a miracle

Now, I admit to being squeamish over the years about becoming an organ donor. I thought about my body, the invasion, how my family might react at that grieving moment.

But a few weeks ago, I sat on a TV panel, next to a vibrant 37-year-old woman named Dawn. She had been close to death with a bad heart. She had planned her funeral. In May 2010, she went into a coma.

She awoke five days later, with a new life. That same week, a 21-year-old Phoenix woman had been killed during a robbery. Her organs were donated and her heart went to Dawn. A tragedy had created a miracle. Dawn rejoined the world of the living.

I stared at her, sitting next to me, all smiles, and I watched her meet her donor’s mother for the first time. There were tears everywhere. And it hit me just how amazing humanity can be, and what a good, true final act it could be to give breath to another life, just as you die.

I hope someone does that for Courtney Penn. I hope someone does it for the other 100,000-plus on the list. Penn’s son often asks, “Dad, will you be able to play Monster Trucks after the big surgery?”

For a guy who has been waiting since age 9 to play without worry, that would be an awfully sweet moment.

To become an organ donor, go to, call 800-482-4881 or sign up at a Secretary of State office to receive a heart emblem for the front of the driver’s license (which adds the donor’s name to the state’s database for organ and tissue donors after death). National instructions and information are available at

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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