Transplant recipient in the Rose Parade strives to pay forward the gift of life

Costa Mesa resident John Whalen has no problem recalling the date: Feb. 27, 2013.

It's seared into his memory as the day his life changed forever.

It's the day Whalen received a liver transplant and a second chance at life.

Now 56 — "I didn't think I'd make it, but I'm here," he says — Whalen will ride in Monday's Rose Parade aboard the float for Donate Life, a coalition of state and national organizations that seeks to increase the number of organ donors nationwide.

That mission has become Whalen's calling in recent years. After all, he's living proof of how organ donors can save lives.

"I'm doing everything I can do to help try to get people to register," he said in an interview Thursday. "I want to help people who weren't as lucky as I am and to pay it forward for this wonderful miracle I've been given."

In September 2012, doctors diagnosed Whalen as having two diseases: alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic condition that can cause lung and liver disease, and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a syndrome that damages the liver.

His liver was deteriorating. Without a transplant, physicians said, he had maybe two years to live.

"I was 52 years old, and the realization that I might not make it to 55," Whalen said, his voice trailing off.

The odds were against him. Nationally, roughly 120,000 people are awaiting some kind of organ donation, and an average of 22 people die each day while waiting for a donor, according to statistics from Donate Life.

Numbers like that, Whalen said, drive home how fortunate he is to be alive today. It's why he's now dedicated to a healthier, more active lifestyle and volunteering for OneLegacy — a nonprofit organ and tissue recovery organization.

It's also why he's devoted his life to keeping the memory of his donor, Jason Gosnell, alive.

"He's really a hero," Whalen said of Gosnell. "He saved my life. He chose to be a donor and gave me the gift of life. I'm here today because of that.

"I believe that Jason is a part of me and he'll always be with me in my life."

This year's Donate Life parade float is styled after a Polynesian catamaran and dubbed "Teammates in Life."

Twenty-four transplant recipients — including Whalen — will row in unison as the float moves. The vessel's sails will feature floral portraits of organ donors.

"There is a clear symbolic association between the team effort needed to propel the catamaran and the selflessness of deceased donors and their families providing life-saving gifts to grateful recipients," said Tom Mone, chairman of the Donate Life float committee and chief executive of OneLegacy, in a statement earlier this year. "Organ donation and transplantation is truly a team effort, and our 2017 float conveys that beautifully."

Whalen said he hopes those who see the float Monday are inspired to become donors themselves.

"I hope people see the donors and that they are being celebrated for the gifts they've given, the hope they've provided," he said. "I hope they see the recipients and they think to themselves, 'You know, what I'd like to do is be a donor and have a legacy I can give to someone else when I pass on.' "

For more information on organ donation, or to register to become a donor, visit donatelife.net.

The 128th annual Rose Parade begins at 8 a.m. Monday in Pasadena.

luke.money@latimes.com

Twitter: @LukeMMoney

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