Survivor illustrates need for organ donors
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
Luther Lockett Jr. is about to celebrate his 25th year with a transplanted heart,
which without, he would not be here today to watch his three grandchildren grow older.
According to Lockett, he now has two birthdays: the one his mother gave him 78-years ago when he was born, and the second one his “heavenly father” gave to him 25-years-ago after he received a life-saving heart from an organ donor.
“We celebrate my birthday every year,” he said, referring to his close-knit family, which includes his beloved wife Marie, whom he has been married to for 53-years this April.
After the transplant, we renewed our vows, he said, looking over to his wife sitting quietly in their northeast Portland living room, decorated with wooden furniture, family photos and religious symbols of their faith.
“These extra years have given me a beautiful granddaughter to know and love,” said Lockett. “I’ve got a second chance, so I live each day like it’s my last.”
The couple is encouraging residents, especially African Americans, to consider becoming an organ donor to increase the chances others will survive serious illnesses.
Throughout the state of Oregon, there are currently more than 859 people waiting for an organ transplant, said Mary Jane Hunt, executive director of the local non-profit Donate Life Northwest, an organization dedicated to educating residents of the importance of becoming a registered donor.
The mission of Donate Life Northwest is to save and enhance lives through the promotion of organ, eye, and tissue donation to ensure that everyone waiting for a transplant has the same access and opportunity to receive the organ they need.
“We are a single non-profit organization that works in collaboration and basically represents the public,” said Hunt. “Our message and mission is about motivating and educating people to register.”
Founded in 1975, Donate Life Northwest brought together the organ, eye and tissue recovery agencies throughout the area to work together on public education.
“This is unique because most of the public education comes from those single entities,” she said. “In the state of Washington and Oregon procurement provides public education.”
According to the non-profit, there are about 2.2 million registered donors in Oregon.
“With the amount of progress with anti rejection drugs and the amount of the public embracing donation, registration has really increased,” she said.
The need for transplants, however, continues to grow.
There are currently 110,000 people waiting for transplants throughout the nation, she said.
“We are fortunate that in our state we have 70 percent of our residents over 18 as registered donors,” she said. “But even though we have this huge number, we still have a long ways to go to improve that statistic.”
Lockett was the 25th transplanted heart recipient at OHSU.
Two weeks before his first heart attack in 1984, Lockett said he went to his annual physical examination, where no one mentioned to him that he should take precaution because of his high cholesterol.
Taking a vacation from work, Luther took his wife to Hawaii for an exotic spring break to escape the Portland rain.
“We were staying at the hotel adjacent to the mall, and dressing for a dinner cruise,” he said. “My chest just started hurting, and my arms felt like they had needles sticking out of them.”
After witnessing the expression of her husband, Marie asked if he was alright, but when
it became clear he wasn’t, she drove him to the nearest hospital.
“I went in, and I said I need to see a doctor. My chest is really hurting me,” he said.
The health professionals administered morphine for the pain, but Lockett said the drugs were not helping him feel better.
“That is when they told me I was experiencing a heart attack,” he said.
The couple doesn’t remember the name of the drug the hospital told Marie she needed to sign off on, but they both recalled, in unison, the power the medicine had on him.
Lockett wasn’t allowed to leave the island for six weeks, but he recovered quickly.
“I owe my life to her,” he said, looking across their living room to his wife, who smiled a modest smile.
After recovery, Luther returned to work for two years, until mid-1986, when he was encouraged to take a medical retirement because of the poor condition of his heart.
A few days after the New Year in 1987, Luther said he was home sitting in the green and beige lounging chair he currently sits in, when he began to feel pain emerge in his chest.
After Marie saw the expression on his face again, she rushed him to the nearest hospital.
“The next day she (the nurse) told my wife we had a second heart attack,” he said. “I could see the fear in her face.”
Although they stabilized him, Lockett said, “It was the only time I had a feeling I might be ready to cash it in, and I told her (Marie), ‘Guess I won’t be see my granddaughters again.’”
Unable to bear the thought, Marie called her daughter, who worked for an airline company out of California, and she put their 4-year granddaughter Le Shante on a plane to Portland.
“Our family is close,” he said. “But my heart was pumpin’ 1/5th of what it should be pumpin’. They gave me at most 2-years.”
But after his daughters talked with the doctors, they suggested a transplant, which Luther said he had yet to consider.
“So they ran tests and then sent me to OHSU for some more tests,” he said. “I met with social workers, psychologists, and finally, they approved me.”
He was put on a waiting list for a transplant on a Wednesday, and by the following Sunday at 1 a.m., Marie and Luther Lockett received the life changing phone call, saying “We have a heart for you.”
Everything began to move quickly once they arrived at the hospital, where they took him to a room that contained a plethora of boxes, which Lockett said resembled the batteries from the Bonneville sub-station at his work.
“They said, that is what is going to keep you alive without a heart,” he recalled. “I had heard my heart was coming from Vancouver, and that is the last thing I remember until Monday.”
Throughout the two-weeks in the hospital after his surgery, Lockett said within a few days he “hadn’t felt that good in a long time.”
Previously, he said the walk from the bedroom to the living room was a wind full.
“But since the transplant, I was no longer disabled, and if I am no longer disabled, I could go back to work,” he said.
At the time, he said waiting lists for organ transplants were much shorter.
“As more people hear about it, see what it does, and what it means, more people are put on the waiting lists than they have organs for,” he said. “So we try to educate people because there is a need, and transplantation does work.”
He said, however, you still have to take care of yourself, obey doctor’s orders, and above all, take your medications, including the anti-rejection drug, which he said he will take for the rest of his life.
“I know a lot of people, especially black people, who will tell you that whatever I was born with I want to be buried with,” he said. “But if you have known someone, it is different, and they are willing.”
He encourages everyone to talk to their family members, if they don’t know your wishes.
Hunt agrees. “I think for some people it is really hard to talk about death, and donations are related to death,” she said. “But we like people to consider thinking about the good that can happen from their passing, and they can help over 50 people by being an organ, eye and tissue donor.”
“The number one myth still prevalent in our community is that people think that if the hospital knows they’re a registered donor, doctors won’t try to save their life, but that is not true at all,” she said.
Organ, eye and tissue donation happens only after all life saving efforts has been exhausted and death has been, we believe, declared, she said. “The hospital staff are there to tend to your immediate emergency and don’t access donor registry.”
Although Marie and Luther Lockett said they don’t know much about the donor, despite multiple attempts to locate his family, they believe he was a late-teen who was killed in a car accident with a friend on a highway in Vancouver.
Although Lockett never had the chance to speak with the donor’s family members, if given the opportunity, he would say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Because whatever their loved one has done, or what kind of person, he has been a good person to me.”
As a way to give back, Lockett is a volunteer with Donate Life Northwest, sharing the message of the importance of organ donation.
Although studies show that 90 percent of Americans support transplantation, only 30 percent know the steps needed to sign up on their state’s registry.
In conjunction with the American Red Cross Martin Luther King Jr. Blood Drive on Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Red Cross Blood Center on Vancouver Avenue, residents are encouraged to also sign up for the organ donor registry.
Registration can also be made online at donatelifenw.org, by requesting a donor code on your driver’s license at any Department of Motor Vehicle office, or by calling 503-494-7888 to make the change through a paper form.