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Pennsylvania exceeds 5 million registered organ and tissue donors

Each day, 20 people in the U.S. die while waiting for an organ transplant. A major milestone has been reached in Pennsylvania's fight to lower that number.

YORK COUNTY, Pa. — On Thanksgiving Day of 2008, Missy Sweitzer’s life changed forever.

“We got that phone call early in the morning, Thanksgiving morning, that no parent ever wants to get,” she recalled.

Her 20-year-old son, Zac, was hit by a drunk driver on I-83 in York Township.

He was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury and declared brain dead just a few days later.

His mom remembers when Zac got his driver’s license.

She was at the DMV with him when he made the decision to become an organ donor.

”Never in a million years did I think I’d ever have to go back to that conversation but that day in the hospital, it wasn’t our decision,” said Sweitzer. “It was Zachary’s that had been made four years prior.”

By donating his heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs, Zac was able to save six lives.

“He was a firefighter, he loved helping people, and that’s the greatest way he could have helped anyone,” said Sweitzer.

Today, more than 5 million Pennsylvanians have signed up to be an organ donor.

With over 7,000 people currently on the transplant waitlist across the Commonwealth, it’s a milestone Gift of Life Donor Program is celebrating.

“It really is amazing how our community has come together to really look at a way to save other lives,” said Dwendy Johnson, communications supervisor for Gift of Life.

Every organ donor has the potential to save eight lives and help even more through tissue donation.

“One person can help give eyesight to someone through cornea donation, even ligaments for ACL replacements, skin for burn victims,” Johnson explained.

A few years after Zac’s passing, the Sweitzer family’s donor story came full circle when Zac’s dad blew out his knee and needed ACL surgery.

“The surgeon came to us and he was like, ‘Yeah we can use your own tissue or we can use donor tissue’ and he looked at us because he knew us personally and said ‘I know this answer,’” said Sweitzer.

The Sweitzer family continues to advocate for all members of the public to sign up to become organ and tissue donors. 

Missy says education is half the battle.

"People think that they're not going to save you if you're in a crash, they're going to look through your wallet to see if you're an organ donor and help somebody else, and that is completely not what happened," she explained. "They worked their hardest to save my son's life and they didn't even know he was an organ donor until he was in the hospital looking at brain death."

You can learn more about how to become an organ donor by heading to the Donate Life PA website.

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