Recipients, families celebrate the life provided by others

YOUNGSTOWN – Families of organ donors filled the auditorium of St. Elizabeth Health Center on Friday to celebrate their loved ones’ lives and those who were able to be saved through their sacrifice.

It was the same hospital that a pregnant Deanna Slifka entered two years ago, excited to give birth to her second child. Then doctors were unable to find the baby’s heartbeat.

The realization that her child was no longer alive left her in shock, but also opened the door for baby Sophia to become a heart valve donor.

“I knew her life was much larger than her death,” Slifka said. ”The day Sophia was born, she challenged us to be strong and compassionate people. Donation is proof that beauty can rise from the ashes.

“I carry two children in my arms and one in my heart,” she told the crowd at the Donate Life Celebration.

The ceremony was also bittersweet for the family of Justin Knight of Youngstown, who died last July at the age of 26.

“It was very moving,” his mother, Denean Knight, said. ”At least (Justin) was able to help someone else.”

Though Justin committed suicide, he was placed on life support for three days while Lifebanc worked to find recipients for his organs. Denean said they were days that her family cherished.

“They say you gave us a gift, but they gave us one too,” Denean said.

Justin already had registered as an organ donor. Now the entire family is registered.

Six of Justin’s organs went to various recipients. Joe Knight, his father, said they are in contact with a 16-year-old girl who received Justin’s liver and look forward to possibly getting to know the other recipients.

Being a recipient is a long, grueling process, said Candace Brown, 30, of Girard.

“No one tells you how hard it is,” she said. “You’re thanking God for your life, but you’re fighting for your life and thankful that you’re fighting.”

The Tribune Chronicle first reported on Brown’s story in June 2012 when she was waiting for a fourth chance at a pancreas transplant. When the call came through that one was available at a Minnesota hospital, she and her mother headed to the Pittsburgh airport.

Racing against the clock and with her flight delayed several times and then canceled, she said things looked bleak. Then a woman and her daughter from Seattle began scouring the terminal for two people who would be willing to give up their seats on an overbooked flight to Minneapolis.

“They go person to person asking for their tickets … until two men actually did it. It’s people like that that help people like us,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “I think about my donor every day.”

Dan Aluise of Poland, who was present at the ceremony, and Greg Blair of Salem were the two who gave up their seats after getting approval from their boss, Joe Varacalli, president of SenSource Inc. The men had been heading to Minneapolis to give a presentation to a client their company had been courting for a while.

After honoring the families of organ donors, the group headed outside to raise a purple and green “Donate Life” flag and plant a tree in their loved one’s memory. Scott Greenfield, 24, who received a liver at the age of 3 and who works in the hospital, hoisted the flag up the pole along with others.

“I felt a need to do this, to help out in the health field,” he said.

Also present at the ceremony were Gordon Bowen, CEO Lifebanc, Mary McMurray, profession relations liaison of Celveland Eye Bank, and Nicholas Kreatsoulos, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Humility of Mary Health Partners.