From tragedy, life — and for one man, the gift of a second chance
By Ashley Super
The Donnie Project
October 27, 2007 was a day that ended a life. A day that many will remember as the one that took their son, brother, boyfriend or friend. It’s also a day that gave the gift of life to three people who never knew Donnie Farrell.
Zadith Colon, an organ procurement worker from the New Jersey Sharing Network (NJSN), approached the Farrell family to discuss donation shortly after they learned Donnie’s brain activity had ceased. They didn’t hesitate.
“I just knew that’s what Donnie wanted,” said Kathy Farrell.
For some families, when faced with the unimaginable, it is nearly impossible to think about giving away their loved one’s organs, despite the knowledge that many are in desperate need of them. However, this was certainly not the case for the Farrell family after a horrific act of evil left them one member short.
Kathy Farrell doesn’t remember exactly when she and her son talked about it, but she can still remember him looking at her and asking, “Why would I take them with me?” In fact, Donnie had made his choice clear, registering to be an organ donor when he renewed his driver’s license after turning 18.
“He didn’t talk about it. It was a decision he made, and that was it,” said Caitlin Farrell. They’d gone to the DMV together, and Caitlin was standing next to Donnie when an employee asked if he’d like to register.
You don’t need them when you die, he told his sister.
“He answered with no thought at all,” Caitlin said.
With over 630 organs donated in New Jersey last year, the process begins once doctors determine a person’s brain activity has ceased and there is no chance of continued life. An attending physician calls the region’s organ procurement organization (OPO).
The OPO, in this case the state Sharing Network, asks the physician screening questions about the health of the patient in order to decide which organs are medically viable, regardless of whether or not the family wishes the organs to be donated or if the patient was a registered donor, according to Dr. Marc Fisicaro, assistant professor from the department of anesthesiology at Thomas Jefferson University.
If the organs are determined to be medically healthy enough for use, the procurement organization sends a representative to the hospital to discuss the possibility of organ donation with the family in person, as Colon did with the Farrells.
Ultimately, the family decides whether or not a organs are donated, according to Fisicaro — simply being registered as an organ donor on a motor vehicle license does not automatically allow the procurement of organs.
The Farrell family’s swift decision to donate Donnie’s organs allowed the OPO and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a non-profit organization entrusted by the federal government to manage the nation’s organ transplant system, to quickly begin the process of matching Donnie’s organs to candidates waiting on the list.
Damage from the assault and subsequent attempts to revive Donnie left his heart and lungs unusable. But his liver, kidneys and heart valves were deemed viable to match with the 112,550 people in the U.S. waiting for organs right now.
Ultimately, three organs were transplanted.
Fausto Migliaccio, a 50 year old Staten Island native, received one of Farrell’s kidneys.
Years of working as a manager of a restaurant had contributed to Migliaccio’s high stress levels, causing extremely high blood pressure and ultimately, kidney failure. For more than four years, he spent at least 12 hours a week on dialysis.
“There is no word to describe when somebody gives you a second chance at life,” said Migliaccio. “On dialysis, you live off of a machine, but when you’re able to stay off of the machine, to me that’s the gift of time,” he added.
Though Migliaccio must still check in with his doctor every few weeks and keep up with his extensive medications, Donnie’s gift ended his dependence on machines and likely extended his life.
Shortly after the fourth anniversary of Farrell’s fatal attack, Migliaccio got the chance to say thanks.
On a rainy morning in November, Migliaccio, accompanied by his daughter and his girlfriend, met with Kathy and Don Farrell at the NJSN’s headquarters in Providence, Union County.
Again, Colon was there to bring the families together, as she had done in the hospital that night four years ago. They paged through some of Donnie’s picture albums and talked about who Donnie was.
Migliaccio talked about the gift that gave him a second chance.
“He told us his story and Donnie really did save his life,” said Kathy.
Though the day celebrated the good that came of Donnie’s generosity, it was also an emotional and bittersweet experience for both families. Tough, but ultimately positive.
“You’re happy you got a kidney, but then at the same time you feel awful because such a horrible thing happened to somebody else, to another human being. But when you meet the family, it’s like you’re a part of them and they’re part of you. There are only two words for that: it’s emotional and beautiful,” said Migliaccio.
While the organ donation process is meant to be anonymous, New Jersey is a small state and news travels fast. Migliaccio said news reports about Donnie’s beating and death, and the timing of his surgery, made him fairly certain Farrell was his donor.
He first reached out to the Farrell family through an anonymous letter after the kidney transplant.
“The letter, for me, was telling them thank you for what you did for me,” said Migliaccio, “but there is no word to describe when somebody gives you a second chance at life.”
Donnie’s second kidney, liver and heart valves were also donated. Although the other kidney recipient rejected the organ, Donnie’s gift gave at least two other recpients a better life. The Farrell family has been told by the NJSN that the liver recipient is living a healthy life because of their donation. It’s more difficult to track down recipients of the heart valves, but both were used.
Unfortunately, some are not as lucky as those who received Donnie’s organs and die waiting on the list. Kathy Farrell, a nurse, has witnessed it.
“I’ve seen the desperation in those who really needed those organs for a better quality of life,” said Kathy. Since Donnie’s death, his siblings, other family members and friends have also signed up to be organ donors.
“All of my children have made that decision, and many other people we know since Donnie’s death,” said Kathy.
“There was no question about it,” said Caitlin. “Donnie did so many great things when he was here, and now he’s still doing something great.”
Ashley Super is a Rowan junior majoring in journalism and political science and the news editor of The Whit.