Ohio Today: For Alumni and Friends of Ohio University

Gift from a stranger

In 1988, Thomas Starr, BBA '69, received a liver transplant after suffering from liver disease for 25 years. Now, he's working to raise awareness of organ donation.

By Betsy Vereckey


For every end, there can be a beginning.


Thomas Starr, BBA '69, got a second chance after he received a gift from a stranger who saved his life.


For 25 years, Starr fought a battle against liver disease that caused him constant physical pain. The emotional pain was daunting as well. Some days Starr felt angry; other times he denied the seriousness of his condition.


But all that improved after Starr had a liver transplant in 1988 that changed the course of his life.


"Now, every breath is precious," Starr says. "I've realized that miracles can happen."


Today, Starr is busy promoting the benefits of organ donation to increase awareness. A Cincinnati resident, Starr founded Miracles for Life Inc., which develops marketing campaigns to increase the likelihood that potential donors will be linked with candidates awaiting transplants. In addition, Starr has served as a spokesman for the National Organ Donor Awareness Council and Transplant Speakers International.


It's difficult to get organ donors, Starr says, because many individuals don't share their preferences with loved ones.


"It's a conversation that rarely happens because of the nature of the topic," Starr says.


By informing your family members of your wishes in advance, you can extend the life of someone in need.


"The family consent rate is less than 50 percent," Starr says. "Even if you've signed an organ donor card, your family may be asked to give consent before donation occurs."


And quite frequently, time is of the essence. Livers, for example, must be transplanted within several hours.


"There's only an eight-hour window to transplant the organ," Starr says. "Doctors still use the old-fashioned ice cooler to transport the organ because it's the most effective."


Most transplants, Starr says, come from young people who die in car accidents.


"The identification card that people carry is usually found in their wallet or purse at the last minute," Starr says. 


In addition, organ donors are rare because people don't know the process of how to register; the different registration procedures and laws in individual states sometimes result in confusion.


"Fortunately, Ohio has a good program, because once you check the box on your driver's license, your name goes in the registry," Starr says.


According to Starr, only 14 states have donor registries, and the remaining 36 states use a paper card.


Last year in Ohio, he says, 100 donated livers never ended up being transplanted.


"That's 100 lives that could have been saved if they had not been discarded," he says.


Starr is working to establish a national donor registry, and he says people should fill out an organ donor card or sign the organ donor registry in their home state to ensure that they are registered.


Another challenge, Starr says, is that many people are not familiar with the process of organ donation.


"It's just something people don't think about because it doesn't get much press coverage," he says. Many celebrities promote other causes, such as AIDS and Parkinson's disease, Starr says.


"The cure is there," Starr says. "We're just waiting for recognition."


With these issues in mind, Starr founded the Miracles in Motion charity benefit program, which features professional athletes to promote organ donor awareness. In the next few months, Starr expects to market a bracelet that will have the symbol for infinity on it.


"It looks like the number eight on its side," Starr explains. "The symbol stands for continuing the quality of life."


Starr hopes that the bracelet will become a trend and increase awareness, as the statistics for organ donors are quite daunting. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, there are about 83,000 candidates on the waiting list for organs, and 14,000 of the candidates are waiting for liver transplants.


Tragically, primary sclerosing cholangitis, the disease that destroyed Starr's first liver, has affected his new one and made him considerably weaker. Starr is awaiting another transplant.


Still, he hasn't slowed down. A sales operations manager for Xerox in Cincinnati, he lives life to the fullest. He even flies his own plane. He and his wife, Anne Wilkerson Starr, BSED '70, have a son and grandson. Starr also keeps in shape by running 5- and 10-kilometer races to raise awareness for organ donation.


"For a long time, I was running away from death," Starr says. "Now I'm running toward life."


Betsy Vereckey, MS '04, is the graduate student writer for Ohio Today Online.

Related links:

Thomas Starr's Miracles for Life Web site


The U.S. Government Web site for organ donation, where you can download a donor card and read more about organ donation


The United Network for Organ Sharing, which provides information about what you can do to promote organ donor awareness


TransWeb.org, which answers questions about organ donation and shares stories of transplant recipients


The Coalition on Donation, which provides information about how to become an organ and/or tissue donor


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