Transplanted lives

In death, Julie De Rossi has made a difference for many people, including giving the Bengals' Carson Palmer `a second chance'

November 30, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

To many sports fans, the idea of rooting for a knee might seem absurd.

To the people who loved Julie De Rossi, it makes all the sense in the world.

Two years ago, they lost this hard-charging woman who raced cars and loved music. A drunken driver traveling 117 mph on a Houston roadway brought a violent end to her life.

But somewhere in this country, De Rossi's liver is keeping someone alive. Elsewhere, her kidneys are doing the same. And in Cincinnati tonight, her Achilles' tendon will support Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer as he faces the Ravens.

Kidney, liver and heart transplants tend to receive the most attention, but the human body - from tissue to bones to corneas - can be used in a remarkable variety of ways. One cadaver can help 80 living people.

When Palmer needed reconstructive knee surgery after a debilitating hit during last season's NFL playoffs, he received a little piece of De Rossi's gift to the world.

"She would be pleased to know that her story has gotten out the message to people who maybe have never even thought about organ donation," said De Rossi's mother, Dorothy Hyde. "That was her legacy. She gave life to a lot of people."

Palmer stopped giving interviews about his January knee surgery once the season started, but he reflected on it during training camp. "It's amazing to think that somebody else is inside me," he told Bloomberg News. "You look at the scar. You stare at it. You rub it. It's given me a second chance at life. And I'm extremely grateful to this person."

Palmer is hardly the first sports figure to benefit from an organ donation. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle received a new liver a few months before his death in 1995. NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott received new kidneys and played on. Legendary DeMatha High basketball coach Morgan Wootten has received kidney and liver transplants. Late NFL great Walter Payton became a major spokesman for organ donation in the last year of his life, though his cancer had progressed too rapidly for a new liver to benefit him.

They are among the most prominent faces of a health issue that affects thousands of Americans and their families.

About 74 people receive organ transplants every day, according to federal statistics. About 19 die every day waiting for a transplant. About 94,000 Americans are awaiting transplants.

Despite those numbers, many people do not sign up to be donors until the issue touches them personally. Because so many Americans feel closely connected to sports heroes, medical officials hope that the experiences of Palmer, Wootten, Mourning and others will make people think twice about checking that box on their driver's licenses.

Creating a bond

Wootten said his liver transplant in 1996 transformed his perspective on how giving people could be. When his son, Joe, gave him a kidney this summer, the experience deepened an already close relationship.

Wootten was still riding high as Stags coach when he collapsed in a bathroom stall at his summer basketball camp 10 years ago. He knew he suffered from a non-alcohol-related form of cirrhosis that caused his immune system to eat away at his liver. But his became an emergency case, putting him first for a transplant.

Two days after Wootten faltered, Rochelle McCoy, a 33-year-old mother of twins from Pasadena, succumbed to a sudden brain aneurysm. Her husband, Ray, knew she wanted to be a donor and the next day, McCoy's liver went into Wootten's body.

Recipients don't automatically learn the identities of their donors. But they can send letters to surviving family members through transplant centers. Wootten did that and as it turned out, Ray McCoy wanted to meet the coach.

The 90-minute encounter moved Wootten so that he and the McCoy family have remained close. He attended the high school graduations of both McCoy children, and Ray McCoy called the coach just before he went in for his kidney transplant this year.

Wootten said the bond is hard to describe to anyone who hasn't been through a similar experience.

"I think they see me and feel a part of their mother is there," he said. "I see them and feel they gave me the gift of life."

After his first transplant, Wootten received hundreds of letters from people who had signed up to be donors after hearing of his experience. He was thrilled to be the conduit for such awareness and has made organ donation his prime charitable enterprise since.

"I think education is the biggest part of it, because most people are just not informed on it," he said. "I really liked a slogan I saw one time that said, `You can't take your organs to heaven, but heaven knows, we need them here.' "

Medical advances

The procedure Palmer underwent, called an allograft, is an example of the advances physicians have made using cadaver parts in recent decades. Doctors took De Rossi's powerful Achilles' tendon, shaved it down, and used it to put Palmer's knee back together.

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