Hollister, CA – On a sunny Wednesday morning, Gil Warren arrives at the Hollister DMV. There's already a line of people waiting to renew their licenses, but Gil is there to make a presentation to the staff. Gil works for the California Transplant Donor Network. It helps match available organs to the people who need them in northern and central California. The DMV is one of the network's most important allies. It's where 98% of California donors register. Employees have to be prepared to handle any inquiries. "I explain a little bit about organ donation and how it works and answer their questions and concerns," says Gil.
Gil's commitment comes from his own experiences with life and death. The youngest of his four sons, Tyler, was born with a heart defect that required eight open-heart surgeries. Then by his late teens, Tyler was put on the transplant list. "For someone waiting for an organ it's a drive you nuts' period of time. They told us not to be more than a few hours away. We decided to live ten minutes away from the hospital," says Gil. Nine months later, Tyler received a life-saving heart transplant. "In December of 2000, one week before Christmas, he received a donated heart from an incredible family. This family made this decision at probably the worst time in their lives to donate their son's heart so that my son could live," says Gil.
Over the next four years, Tyler graduated from high school, started college, and found the love of his life. But the Warren family would soon find itself in the middle of another crisis. "The police came to our door and knocked on it and said are you the parents of Jesse Warren? Worst, worst day of my life," says Gil.
Jesse Warren, Tyler's 27 year-old brother, had died in a car crash. Despite their grief, the Warrens immediately started taking steps to make sure Jesse's body would be used to help others. "You feel good about it, but it doesn't take the pain away obviously. It's just it's something that makes sense. It helps make sense of a tragic happening," says Gil.
Jesse's corneas allowed two people see, and his tissues went to 21 other people. About six million Californians are registered donors. But the demand for transplants still outweighs the supply. Sandy Andrada from the California Transplant Donor Network says one of the reasons people hesitate to become donors is the fear they won't receive the same life-saving care as a non-donor. Andrada calls that a myth. "Organ donation isn't even brought up between the nurses and us or between us and the family until after a patient has been declared dead. So that conversation, that topic, doesn't even come up in the person's mind who's treating you at the time of a medical emergency," she says.
For the Warrens, the heartache didn't stop with Jesse's death. Soon after, Tyler died of a heart attack, just a month before his 21st birthday. The doctors couldn't say what went wrong with his new heart. But the Warrens were grateful for the extra four and a half years it gave Tyler.
Gil now keeps the memory of his sons close with dog tags on a chain around his neck. And he credits them with the new meaning he's found in his life as an advocate for organ donation. "I get to wake up every morning, look myself in the mirror and say How many lives can I help save today?' which is a pretty darn good feeling and not a whole lot of people can say that," he says. In the presentation he'll give at the Hollister DMV and other offices across the state, Gil hopes his story inspires employees who are on the front lines of signing up donors.
Right now there are more than 500 people in the Monterey Bay Area waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. You can register to be a donor at the DMV or by visiting the website www.donatelifecalifornia.org.