Becky Bjerklie’s 16-year-old son Brandon died of an asthma attack in 2019. That’s when she recalled a conversation with him about becoming an organ donor when he’d get his license.
“We never knew how fast we were going to have to honor that decision because it was just a couple weeks later when everything had happened,” Bjerklie said.
Through that tragedy, his choice to be a donor proved lifesaving for more than 70 people who received organs and bone marrow.
“We just got a letter a couple weeks back that one of his tendons just helped a lady this last month after two years. He’s still helping people,” Bjerklie said.
The impact of Brandon’s decision led Becky to become an advocate for LifeSource, an organ procurement organization that works with hospitals to connect people on a waitlist with donors.
“He made the comment, he said ‘Why doesn’t everybody do this?’, and I said I don’t know, but maybe that’s something we need to work on, and here I am trying to do that, trying to work on that,” Bjerklie said.
Despite hurdles brought by the virus, which made many potential donors ineligible, in 2020 LifeSource saw its second highest number of donations in 30 years, and Communications Manager Sarah Sonn says that trend is continuing.
“We’re on track this year to be our highest year ever. The generosity, the amount of people able to say yes is truly inspiring despite everything else going on,” Sonn said.
Sonn says 145 North Dakotans are currently waiting for a kidney, but there are likely many others at transplant centers in other states to receive an organ.
And the percent of potential donors is small, not only because just 54% of North Dakotans are registered as donors but because of the criteria.
“That’s one of the unique things about organ donation. It’s so rare because, you need to be on a ventilator, you need to pass away in a hospital, be free of active cancers,” Sonn said.
Sanford Health Bismarck’s transplant nephrologist Dr. Diego Beltran says Sanford saw a significant drop in transplants during the early months of the pandemic when little was known about the risks involved with COVID.
But with vaccines now available, the number of transplants has returned to its normal rates.
“We’ve seen a normalization on the number of organ offers at least for our center. We haven’t been seeing a significant increase on the number of donors, at least not here at our center,” Beltran said.
He says there are about 80 patients at Sanford Bismarck currently waiting on a kidney, a process that can take five to six years. But once a patient gets one, it’s lifechanging.
“It’s the biggest gift that you could possibly give. Any donor available would change the life of any of our kidney patients,” Beltran said.