261 Washingtonians honored at ‘Gift of Life’ ceremony for organ donors

Less than 1% of organ donors who died in Washington last year were eligible to donate their organs. On Thursday, families of those organ donors gathered at the state Capitol for a ceremony to honor their loved ones.

Families of the 261 Washingtonians who donated their organs in 2022 were presented with awards from Gov. Jay Inslee at the “Gift of Life” event.

Janet Anderson spoke at the ceremony Thursday. Her 35-year-old son, Greg, died in 2018 in Spokane.

“My goal here was to literally speak hope into these families that are so raw in suffering since they lost loved ones in 2022,” Anderson told McClatchy.

Joining Anderson on Thursday was the recipient of her son’s liver, Al Bass. Anderson and Bass have developed a close friendship in the wake of her son’s death. They met at the governor’s Gift of Life ceremony four years ago, they said.

Bass, a retired teacher, was diagnosed with a non-alcoholic fatty liver disease called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis at least 10 to 12 years before he received the organ donation, he told McClatchy. He spent approximately eight of those years in and out of a hospital bed at home, and was told that he likely wouldn’t get an organ donation.

In July of 2018, Bass collapsed after it took him three hours to change a tire, and was flown to the University of Washington Medical Center–Montlake in Seattle where he received the transplant.

Anderson said that knowing her son was able to continue giving life to Bass helps her through her grief.

“I just can’t imagine going through the loss of Greg and not having that, I just can’t,” she said. “He (Bass) got me through those really critical times.”

Bass encouraged other organ recipients to reach out to donor families.

“It’s the hardest letter you’ll ever write,” Bass said.

Also honored at the ceremony Thursday was Deputy Dominique “Dom” Calata, a Pierce County deputy who died last year in the line of duty. His organs, tissue and cornea were donated to others after he died in March 2022. Calata is survived by his wife, Erin, and their 4-year-old son, Dylan, who also attended the event.

Santokh Gill, President and CEO of LifeCenter Northwest, told McClatchy that the reason so few organ donors are able to donate their organs is because donors must be on a ventilator when they die.

“It’s often tragedy that leads to a donation,” Gill said.

Additionally, donors must be medically suitable and cannot have a history of certain diseases such as cancer.

Organs must be recovered quickly upon a person’s passing, and a national database is accessed to find recipients. A number of factors are considered, including distance, how long someone has been on the waitlist and how sick someone waiting on a transplant is.

Up to eight lives can be saved by one donor, Gill said.

The easiest way to sign up for organ donation is through the Department of Licensing, Gill said. People often won’t be able to make the choice to be a donor in the hospital, so going through DOL is the “safest legally-binding way to make that decision.”

Gill said that 61 people in Washington died last year waiting for an organ donation, and 152 Washingtonians have been on a waiting list for donated organs for more than five years.