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Time out with T.O. - The power of organ donation

Image with caption: Tom McNeil with his best friend, his dog, Walter.

Tom McNeil with his best friend, his dog, Walter.

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Tom McNeil celebrated the 25th anniversary of his heart transplant on Nov. 1.

Tom McNeil epitomizes the value of organ donation.

A cattle rancher from Taylor, Neb., McNeil will celebrate his 84th birthday on Nov. 21. No small feat.

But, even more noteworthy, he notched another milestone on Nov. 1 when he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his heart transplant at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine.

McNeil is flat out amazing. Every day, he does his chores on his cattle ranch located in the Sandhills in the middle of Nebraska.

"I never quit working," said McNeil, who noted that he rolled his four-wheeler earlier this month while rounding up cattle. "It took me about 20 minutes to get out from under it. I got a few bruises, but I'll be alright."

How to become an organ donor

It's estimated that more than 113,000 people nationally are on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Every 10 minutes, a new name is added to the waiting list.

In Nebraska, Live On Nebraska is the organization that enrolls people to become organ, tissue and eye donors.

Located in a new building at 3867 Leavenworth St. directly south of UNMC's Home Instead Center for Successful Aging, Live On Nebraska facilitates the donation process and works closely with the medical center when an organ is available for one of its patients.

The only qualification necessary to register as a donor is that you need to be 16 years old or older. Age, health and lifestyle do not limit one's ability to register or donate. By registering as a donor, you authorize donation to take place after your death, sparing your family from having to make the decision for you. Registration serves as legal consent for donation.

"Many organs can be donated and thousands of lives impacted by your decision to become an organ and tissue donor," said Kara Cordell, marketing and public relations manager for Live On Nebraska. "It provides the opportunity for you to leave a legacy of kindness and generosity."

Cordell encourages people to share their decision to become a donor with their friends and family.

"Your family will play an important part in supporting your decision and providing information that affects that outcome of your donation," Cordell said.

View a news segment from KSNB-TV (Ch. 4) in Hastings, Neb., on McNeil's 25th anniversary as a heart transplant recipient.

With his flattop haircut and a face seemingly etched out of stone, McNeil still cuts an impressive figure. When he got his transplant in 1994, he was almost 59. Doctors hoped that the transplant would extend his life by another 10 years.

"I think it's just spectacular," said Brian Lowes, M.D., Ph.D., a UNMC professor, internal medicine-cardiovascular medicine, and a cardiologist with Nebraska Medicine. "Every year when I see him, I just smile. He's in his 80s now and continues to work. He's had an incredibly good outcome with this."

McNeil remembers well what it was like to be on the waiting list for a new organ. With his heart failing, he had open-heart surgeries in 1980 and 1987.

"I waited a little over a year," he said. "I thought it's probably not going to happen because my health was getting worse as I went along, and I kind of thought. . . I better start making some different plans in life."

As you would suspect, McNeil has become a huge proponent of organ donation.

"I've been lucky," he said. "I've been doing what I want to do. I've been really fortunate since I had this transplant. It let me see my family grow up -- my kids graduate from college. I probably would have never been able to see my grandkids or my great grandkids. It's just been a blessing."

McNeil's remarkable success story is a perfect reminder of why it's so important for people to consider becoming organ donors, Dr. Lowes said.

"The average donor can save approximately eight lives or donate about six organs," he said. "We do about 3,000 heart transplants per year in this country. To meet the needs of our population, we probably need to do twice that."

Perhaps McNeil says it best.

"I wouldn't be here if someone hadn't donated an organ to me. It's just a waste to take 'em with you."

Big fans of medical center

Tom McNeil and his wife of 37 years, Sue, will never forget how UNMC/Nebraska Medicine saved Tom's life in 1994 when he received his heart transplant.

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Tom and Sue McNeil

The surgery was performed by Anselmo Alonso, M.D., who was chief of the medical center's cardiothoracic surgery program until his untimely death in a 1998 auto accident. McNeil was just the sixth heart transplant recipient at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine.

Following Tom's transplant, Sue was recruited to the UNMC Board of Counselors, a group of community and business leaders from across the state who advise the UNMC chancellor on health care issues of importance.

A social studies teacher at Loup County Public School in Taylor, Sue was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 1995. Incredibly, the McNeils' daughter, Megan Helberg, received the 2020 Teacher of the Year Award earlier this month. She teaches eighth, 11th and 12th grades at Burwell Junior-Senior High School.

The McNeils rarely missed a meeting of the Board of Counselors, making the 250-mile trek to Omaha and frequently staying overnight in a hotel. Since Tom's transplant, they have become staunch advocates for UNMC/Nebraska Medicine and have tried their best to spread the word on the importance of becoming an organ donor.

"Our respect for the health professionals at UNMC/Nebraska Medicine is off the chart," Sue said. "We know first-hand what serious medicine/extraordinary care is all about.

"We are thrilled to help UNMC and organ donation any way we can. We have been blessed!"

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