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Mountains home to willing organ donors

Kimberly Nicoletti/Summit County Correspondent

Breckenridge Ski Resort employee Catherine Norrie chose to make a difference in people’s lives by saying “yes” to organ and tissue donation.

The 25-year-old died Jan. 27 when her family removed her from life support after she sustained severe brain injuries from an after-hours terrain park accident. But a part of her lives on in others. About 50 people can benefit from her organ and tissue donation, said family friend and Frisco resident Don Sather.

Norrie represents one of the many people who made their wish to donate organs and tissues known.

In the last year, the Frisco driver’s license office – one of two bureaus close to Eagle County – had the highest percentage of increase in drivers who said “yes” to organ and tissue donation in Colorado. In 2002 in Frisco, 49 percent of registered drivers chose to be organ donors. In 2003, 70.1 percent signed up, said Amy Kusek, program manager at the Donor Awareness Council.

Statewide, 76 percent of Coloradans are willing donors, compared to the national average of 54 percent, according to Patricia Brewster of Donor Alliance.

“I was asking driver’s license office employees why people were telling them “yes,’ and they said it was because people want to make a difference,” Kusek said. “I think the (Summit County) population is a lot more open to it, and people are better informed because of things like the Llama Rama in Fairplay that promotes organ and tissue donation.”

About three years ago, the state Legislature created the Colorado Organ and Tissue Donor Registry, a confidential database of individuals who have documented their decision to be donors.

Driver’s license offices in Colorado have designated willing donors for 20 years. Before that, donor information wasn’t readily available to hospital personnel.

In accident cases, police officers often took driver’s licenses, which contained donor information. Without a driver’s licenses, medical personnel had to ask family members, who sometimes were unsure, Kusek said.

But some families, like Breckenridge resident Joni Kuhlman’s, know what their loved ones would want. The Kuhlman’s 15-year-old son, Christopher, died in 1997 after a car hit him on Airport Road as he walked home from school.

“We didn’t really discuss it, but with the kind of person he was, he would have definitely wanted to be an organ donor,” Kuhlman said. “Christopher was able to help a lot of people by being a donor.”

The Kuhlman’s keep in touch with some of the people Christopher helped, including a 62-year-old woman.

“”It’s a Miracle’ featured the story, because the woman started swimming for physical therapy after receiving Christopher’s heart,” Kuhlman said. “At the time, she didn’t know Christopher was an avid swimmer. She went on to compete in the Transplant Olympic Games.

“As with every other parent, you hope your child will grow up and make a positive impact and a difference in the world,” Kuhlman said. “Even though our son wasn’t able to do that personally, through organ and tissue donation, several other people are doing just that.—

“A lot of great people are anxiously awaiting organs,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that the only way to receive them is through the loss of life. It can be a horrible thing for family members to accept, but it can turn a tragic loss into a bittersweet comfort.”

Last year, 82 organ donors from Colorado and Wyoming saved hundreds of lives. Tissue donations – including bone, tendons and skin – from more than 600 people enhanced thousands more lives.

The biggest organ need is kidneys, with 56,000 nationally, according to the Donor Alliance.

People’s No. 1 fear about signing up as an organ and tissue donor involves mistrust of the system, particularly worrying that medical personnel may not do everything possible to save their lives. Others think they’re too old to be donors, said Kusek.

Kusek said she assures people that medical personnel don’t know who is and isn’t a willing donor when they’re saving lives, and even people in their 80s – or those with cancer – can be possible donors.

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Becoming a donor

To become a donor, sign up at your local driver’s license office, or visit http://www.coloradodonorregistry.org. For more information, call (888) 256-4386.

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