Patrick Reagin, now a sophomore, had Zell last year for biology. "Everybody likes Mr. Zell," Reagin says. And because Reagin knows Zell, the idea of being an organ donor now seems more realistic. "I've always been in favor of it," Reagin says, "but it just kind of seemed far away."
Nationwide, 50,000 people are waiting for organs, a number that's more than doubled within the past 10 years. Most are waiting for kidneys. Yet young people are donating fewer organs, says Dr. Doug Slakey, who worked on Zell's transplant along with Dr. Sandy Florman.
"Over the last decade, the average donor became older and was less ideal from a health perspective," says Slakey. That's partly because the death rate is down -- fewer young people are dying. Still, nationwide, only about half of eligible donors give permission for their organs to be used.
In Louisiana, permissions from family are always required even if an accident victim carries a donor card. And when the victim is young, families are much less likely to give permission. "It's something none of us want to think about," Slakey says.
The New Orleans-based National Donor Awareness Foundation will be discussing all of these topics on Monday, Oct. 30, as teachers and student leaders from more than 50 area schools gather at Delgado Community College for the Frank Voelker Memorial Youth Forum on Organ & Tissue Donation. Among the attendees will be Zell and a few of his students.
In the summer of 2002, Zell -- an active runner and the head cross-country coach at Newman -- began experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath whenever he ran. Tests found that the potassium in his bloodstream was "off the chart," says Zell -- a sign that his kidneys were not filtering his blood like they should.
"My kidneys had been good for 30 years," he says, "but we know that, in diabetics, kidneys get beat up." In lifelong diabetics like Zell, fluctuating blood-glucose levels can damage kidneys, eyes, and nerve cells in the hands and feet.
Zell's kidneys failed quickly -- by October, he needed dialysis. He rolls up his shirt and shows where the needle went, three days a week for three-and-a-half hours each session. Bulging out of his skin is a big blood vessel, the result of an artery that was surgically disconnected from the smaller vessels that lead to the hand. Always the teacher, Zell shows how his left hand was often visibly colder than his right as a result of decreased blood flow.
As soon as he started dialysis, Zell was put on a cadaver donor list for two organs -- a kidney and a pancreas. A kidney can also come from a living donor, if the donor matches in blood type and six genetic markers. Zell, who has no siblings, emphasizes that relatives might be more willing to donate, but they're not the only possibilities. "There are complete strangers who might be a better match than a relative," he says, telling of an instance where a husband needed a kidney and his wife was a perfect match.
A few months into dialysis, Zell was awakened at 2 a.m. by a phone call -- Zell was the second candidate in line for a pancreas and kidney. He headed down to Tulane University, where he was put in a room with the No. 1 candidate, an older man.
"It was weird at first," says Zell. "If he had been a jerk, I would have thought, 'I really want this kidney.' But he was a good guy." After six hours, the hospital said that the number-one candidate matched, and so Zell went home.
Not long afterward, Zell found a match in a living donor -- a cousin. "If he had gone on the national (cadaver) waiting list, Mr. Zell could have had a waiting time for two years or more," says Slakey. Slakey operated on the cousin and Florman operated on Zell, concurrently and in adjoining operating rooms so that the kidney could be removed from the cousin and almost immediately transplanted into Zell.
This fall, Zell brought more than his new kidney to the classroom. His anatomy and physiology classes will see actual X-rays, MRIs and CD-roms of their teacher. The class will not be "a history of Mr. Zell's medical condition," the teacher says. "But with everything I did, I'd say, 'Can I have a copy?'"
It may be a few years, but whenever Zell gets the phone call about an available pancreas, he hopes to get the surgery videotaped for the class. But he'd also like to focus on a few things outside the classroom. Some serious traveling, for instance. And running a marathon again. "That's my dream," he says.