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Have (and give) a heart; families share their transplant story to raise organ donor awareness

LeRoy and Ruth Wegscheid (couple on the right), spoke at St. Lawrence Parish along with Greg and Debbie Pouliot, the parents of LeRoy's heart donor. Debbie is holding a photo of her son, Jeff, whose donated organs saved multiple lives, including LeRoy’s. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS

On Sunday, March 30, Debbie Pouliot stood in front of the people assembled in St. Lawrence Parish church and told a story.

“We got the dreaded phone call that no parent wants to get,” she began. “Our son was being taken to the hospital by ambulance. What happened in the next few days changed our lives, and changed the lives of a lot of other people.”

It doesn’t sound like a tale that could have a happy ending, but it did for some, thanks to a short word on a driver’s license: Donor.

Jeff Pouliot was 34 years old. He loved fishing, hunting and heavy metal music. On Oct. 13 of 2006, he went to bed, complaining of a headache. Those ended up being some of the last words he ever spoke.

“He just went to bed with a headache, and never woke up,” Debbie said.

According to the doctors, Jeff suffered a massive stroke that was “inoperable and unsurvivable.”

After four days at the hospital, Jeff was confirmed brain dead, and the Pouliot family had a difficult decision to make.

“We knew that he wanted to be an organ donor, and so, our focus at the hospital changed from praying that he would live to praying that his organs would be good for transplantation,” said Debbie. “I thought, ‘If they can only transplant one organ, I sure hope it’s his heart.’”

Ultimately, Jeff’s choice to register as a donor saved three lives.

“That was the only good news we got in the hospital,” Debbie said. “It was a light for us.”

“I said, ‘This is just the worst day ever. I guess our prayers weren’t answered,’” Debbie said of when she, Greg, and their daughter, Becky first left the hospital as a family of three.

But, Debbie added, Becky had an important insight: “Mom, this is the best day ever for those other families. Jeff was the answer to their prayers.”

One of those other families lived right here, in the area. Without Jeff’s heart, LeRoy Wegscheid might not be here today.

Debbie and Greg Pouliot, along with LeRoy and Ruth Wegscheid, shared their experiences in front of the church on Sunday for a special reason: April is Organ Donor Awareness Month.

As of March 31, more than 121,900 people were on the national transplant waiting list. Nineteen people were added by April 1. Almost 100,000 of these people are waiting for a kidney match, close to 15,700 for a liver and 3,800 for a heart.

In 2013, nearly 29,000 organ transplants were performed in the United States, with organs donated from about 14,000 donors.

LeRoy said 63 percent of Minnesotans are registered to be organ donors. It’s the highest rate in the country, compared to a national average of 42 percent.

However, the need for these organs is still greater than is currently being met. Each day, an average 18 people die while waiting for an organ.

As in Jeff’s case, one organ donor can save or enhance multiple lives – up to 60 lives through organ, eye and tissue donation.

Organs and tissues that can be donated include the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, eyes, skin, heart valves, bone, veins and other connective tissues (such as tendons).

LeRoy received Jeff’s heart. Another person from Minnesota was matched to his liver and a kidney. Jeff’s other kidney and pancreas went to a man from Vermont. His corneas gave sight to two people. Other tissue donations helped 37 additional people.

Jeff now lives on in 10 other states, and El Salvador, enhancing the lives of people between the ages of 16 and 82.

LeRoy said he’s learned a majority of people never hear anything from the recipients of transplanted organs: “I’ve talked to so many people who said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to say.’ Well, how hard is it to say ‘Thank you?’”

“I got my perfect heart,” he said. “It was a blessing.”

Seven years later, it’s still beating strong.

More information about registering may be found at or

MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS about organ donation sometimes discourage people from registering as a donor. LifeSource, the organization which coordinates donations and transplants in the region, shares their top 10 facts about organ and tissue donation.

-Your life is always first: When someone is brought to the hospital after an accident or injury, saving their life is the first priority. Donor status is only considered after every effort to save the person’s life has been made and brain death is declared.

-Everyone has the potential to be an organ or tissue donor: Most health conditions do not prevent donation and age is not a major factor. The oldest organ donor was 92 years old.

-All major, organized religions in the United States support organ and tissue donation.

-No cost to your family: Your family does not pay for medical expenses associated with donation. However, any medical expenses incurred before the donation process and funeral costs remain the family’s responsibility.

-One life can help up to 60: One person can save or heal up to 60 lives through organ and tissue donation.

-Everyone is equal: When waiting for an organ transplant, everyone is treated equally. Wealth or fame doesn’t place someone higher on the waiting list. Factors considered when making a match include blood type, body size, location, severity of recipient’s illness and length of time on the waiting list.

-Your decision will be honored: When registering to become a donor, you are making a legal decision that will be honored after your death (unless you previously gave permission and then officially revoked it). In Minnesota, parents or family can negate this choice in the case of a minor child.

-If you don’t make a decision, your family will: If you haven’t registered as a donor, your family may be asked to decide about donation on your behalf.

-You’ll be treated with respect: Medical professionals who perform organ recovery surgeries treat donors with respect, just the same as any other patient. Donation does not affect the ability to have an open casket funeral.

-Registering is easy: You can register as a donor on your next driver’s license or though