Support group advocates for organ donations
Cal Willahan, 65, of Prescott Valley boasts - without exaggeration - that he has the heart of a 29-year-old man, thanks to an organ transplant.
He volunteers at the Prescott Valley Chamber of Commerce, where he answers the phones in a husky voice and greets travelers, newcomers and others who drop by the office on the first floor of the Fain Signature Group building.
He said he would not be alive today - and volunteering for the chamber - had he not undergone a heart transplant July 28, 2009, at the Mayo Hospital in Phoenix. He waited eight months for the heart after doctors installed an artificial heart known as a LVAD device.
"There was nothing wrong (with me)," Willahan said. "I did not smoke, no drugs, no drinking (except) an occasional beer."
Willahan learned that a virus attacked his heart, causing shortness of breath.
"I passed out in an emergency room," Willahan said. He woke up from a coma about two months later with the LVAD implanted in him.
The human heart became available after a 26-year-man died in a swimming pool accident, Willahan said.
Willahan, a U.S. Army veteran and former aide in the San Diego office of then-U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., before retiring to Prescott Valley, has attended meetings of the Prescott Area Organ Transplant Support Group for three years.
The support group is affiliated with DonateLifeAZ, which the Donor Network of Arizona administers.
The group has been meeting for at least 10 years, started with six people and has drawn participation from as many as 30, said Howard Kelly, its unofficial leader. They range in age from 53 to 73.
All of the participants have some connection to organ transplants. They or their spouses received transplants, donated their organs to immediate family members, or await organ donations from a national registry.
The group meets monthly to socialize and offer support to each other, Kelly said.
"It changes your life so much," Kelly said about organ transplants.
Kelly, 69, of Prescott Valley said he became involved with the group after his late wife, Pat, received a kidney transplant in 2002. She died in 2010.
"When my wife got a transplant, I did not know anything about it," Kelly said. "I did not know about the stress involved, what is required of me. So, my wife and I went looking for a (support) group."
Kelly, a retired U.S. Postal Service manager, said he found out about the support group from reading the newspaper.
While Kelly's wife and other recipients have died, some members of the group have lived with donated organs for years. Dick Bowerman, 73 of Skull Valley said he has had a donated liver for 17 years. A retired schoolteacher, he said he needed a new liver because his bile duct was clogged.
Another organ transplant recipient, Raquel Reinke of Paulden, said she has been waiting five years to replace a kidney that doctors transplanted in 1998. Reinke, 40, said she undergoes annual reviews over the phone and visits with a medical team every two years.
Reinke, Kelly, Willahan and the others discussed their situations at their monthly dinner meeting this past Wednesday at the Bonn-Fire restaurant in Chino Valley.
Besides meeting once a month, the support group also takes part in public speaking, sets up booths at special events and enters floats in parades, Kelly said.
The support group is vital to the organ donation community, said Kris Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Donor Network of Arizona in Phoenix.
"They give hope to those waiting by registering Arizonans to save and heal lives," she said.
She said more than 2,300 people in Arizona are waiting for organ transplants; the national figure is 115,000 people.
For more information about the group, call Kelly at 308-6955 or Willahan at 277-0377.
For more information about the Donor Network, log onto www.DonateLifeAZ.org, or call (800) 943-6667.