Louisiana has record-breaking year for organ donations


Cardiac sarcoidosis patient Anthony Rhoda receives a new heart. Rhoda was one of many to be an organ recipient in Louisiana. Courtesy of Anthony Rhoda.

Erin Snodgrass

Anthony Rhoda is no stranger to hospital stays. He spent his 39th birthday in the hospital. He spent Father’s Day 2019 in the hospital. And he spent the Fourth of July in the hospital.

But Rhoda got to spend Christmas with his family after receiving a heart transplant in June of 2019.

Three years earlier, Rhoda was diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease that attacked his heart and caused scarring that disrupted the heart’s nerves, leaving him unable to even play with his three young children.

“The best I could do was go and sit and watch them play, and sometimes, it was too much effort to do that,” Rhoda said.

Rhoda is just one organ recipient who benefitted from a record-breaking year for organ donation across the country.

In Louisiana alone, the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency broke records with 233 organ donors and 754 organs transplanted in 2019.

LOPA Community Educator Lana Stevens said there are a variety of reasons for the increased number of donations.

“I think more people are talking about it, I think that medicine has become almost innovative,” Stevens said. “Our potential donors are more than they used to be, but as far as I’m concerned, community education is what’s going to be strongest.”

In addition to raising donation numbers in the Louisiana registry, Stevens’ job also included dispelling popular myths about organ transplants.

“Unfortunately, we’re always up against a medical show that shows this kind of stuff can happen in an hour, because it makes for good TV,” Stevens said.

But, she said the reality is that a proper donation and transplant can take almost 24 hours.

For Rhoda, doctors told him they had found a heart for him at 6:30 a.m., but the surgery didn’t start until 7:00 p.m. and wasn’t finished until 3:00 a.m. the next day.

“It’s just a whole surreal period at that point,” he said. “You gotta worry about whether you’re going to come out of it or not, because things happen, and you just try to make peace with God and everyone else around you.”

When he finally woke up, Rhoda was treated to a special sight, surrounded by his family and with a new heart.

“I was in a room facing the city, so I got to see the dueling barge’s fireworks,” he said. “It was awesome that I got to see the fireworks for the 4th of July.”

But for the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency, relationships with donor families and recipients don’t end after surgery. Stevens said most of the organization’s volunteers are former recipients.

Rhoda, who was still in recovery for most of 2019, was quick to join the organization as a volunteer.

In addition to volunteering, Rhoda has returned to work full-time and has dedicated his new life to cardiac rehab, regular doctor’s appointments, dietary restrictions and lifelong anti-rejection medication.

But he said he doesn’t mind his new life of rules and requirements.

“I kind of feel an obligation to do the best I can,” Rhoda said. “Because this heart and I are going to keep going here.”

Stevens said she is also looking toward the future regarding the agency’s record-breaking year.

“The pressure is on,” Stevens said. “We always want to break our records, we always want to save more lives.”

In addition to the 754 organs donated for transplantation purposes, the agency obtained an additional 102 organs for medical research purposes.

“You don’t want to say that those are not organs that saved lives, because in the long run, they might,” Stevens said.

While Rhoda has not made contact with his donor’s family yet, he hopes to soon, and said every moment he gets to spend with his family is a reminder of someone else’s ultimate sacrifice.

“I got to spend Christmas with my kids. And the other thing I always think about is that this Christmas was someone’s first Christmas without their loved one, and that’s the reason I’m alive,” he said.