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The Crowd: Challenge of finding living organ donors to be met head-on by new O.C. nonprofit

Post transplant, Cathie Cook, Bruce Cook (B.W.) and Sally Struthers thank donor Heidi Miller, with Pam Sharp.
(Courtesy of Heidi Miller)
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With the arrival of the New Year 2023, may all Daily Pilot and L.A. Times readers share in a year of good health. Without health, life is challenging.

On this subject, the final “Crowd” of 2023 is about health and about the generosity and selflessness of those who step forward to donate life as living organ donors. There is no greater gift.

Coming up Jan. 19, the Life Savers Foundation of Orange County will welcome the community to its inaugural event to be held at Balboa Bay Resort, Newport Beach, hosted and underwritten by Carole Pickup, founding chair of the new nonprofit.

Before I delve into more about the organization, I’d like to share the back story. As a journalist, I generally do not allow this column to be so personal. However, in this case, it is too important to help so many others with kidney failure.

Bruce Cook, Heidi Miller and donor chair of Life Savers Foundation Carole Pickup.
(Courtesy of Heidi Miller)

With that in mind, I offer my story in an effort to “pay it forward” so others suffering from organ failure may find hope. More importantly, so they may find life-saving results.

In early 2012, following a year of intravenous albumin infusions delivered at Hoag Cancer Center in an attempt to stall dialysis, nephrologist Dr. Eric Wechsler insisted there was no more time to stall. My kidney function was life-threatening.

On the first day of dialysis, I entered the clinic on Coast Highway in Newport Beach at 3:30 p.m. for my session scheduled for 4 o'clock. I was set up for three four-hour sessions every week. Barely inside, the heavy glass door that buzzed me in slammed shut behind me. Imagining the initial feeling of a prisoner facing sentence on his first day behind bars, I examined the large room with some 25 kidney dialysis patients reclined on gray vinyl chairs hooked up by clear plastic tubes carrying red blood out of the body and back in again courtesy of tall electronic filtering machines beeping and ringing constantly.

A dozen male attendants ran tirelessly between the patients. Nurses in obligatory white uniforms paced the cavernous clinic with its lighting so strong airplanes could find their way to a landing strip. Suddenly, the bells, and buzzers became deafeningly strong. Attendants were racing to a corner of the clinic. Moments later EMT techs pushed through the secure glass door. They had the code. No time to waste.

In the corner, a man screamed in pain yelling “F---” louder than ever expressed in any language. A nurse attempted to comfort him. He was not the one in crisis. A young man in the chair adjacent had slumped over to one side. The EMT was pounding his chest feverishly.

It ended as quickly as it began. The patient was placed on the gurney and rushed out of the clinic surrounded by the dedicated public servants on rescue squad. I was still standing to the side in the entry way. As the patient passed by, I caught the eye of one of the EMTs shaking his head to indicate that the man did not survive; I nodded understanding.

At that moment, I said to myself, “I can’t do this.”

Five years later, following a long and difficult search for both a potential cadaver kidney and a hospital willing to perform the transplant, I was batting zero. No familial matches. Several friends stepped forward, then rescinded. I did not blame them. Not for one second. Yet, clearly, I had also survived. Despite initial fear, I did do dialysis for five years. I lived. However, while the dialysis had saved me it also took its toll. Doctors were not optimistic.

Dr. Jim Doti and Heidi Miller at a UC Irvine Health event for kidney care.
(Courtesy of Heidi Miller)

Step in Carole Pickup, matriarch of Pickup-Martin family ownership of major hotel properties, and specifically of Balboa Bay Resort and Club on the Coast. Carole repeatedly offered to sponsor a “donor awareness” event to tell my story and the serious need for so many people. There are some 100,000 kidney patients currently registered in the U.S. seeking transplants. The wait time can be eight to 10 years. Finally, I gave in gratefully. For all the years in dialysis, my health crisis was mostly kept secret. I never missed a Pilot deadline.

In May of 2017, just after Mother’s Day, some 500 guests arrived at the Balboa Bay Resort ballroom for the party. Jerry Mandel and his jazz band performed and many in attendance, including Angels baseball legend Rod Carew, television host Peter Marshall, journalist Tom Johnson of Stu News (a former publisher of the Daily Pilot) and respected Dr. John Huffman, were among those who stood and shared their personal stories.

Trying to be funny, as the evening came to a close, I took the microphone and shouted to Aaron Trent, event producer, to lock the ballroom doors and let no one leave until a donor could be found. The crowd roared. No donor came forward. The doors remained open.

Two months passed; I was back to dialysis. Then, a random phone call came from a woman named Heidi Miller, Laguna Beach businesswoman, former owner of the famous Heidi’s Yogurt franchise and presently operating boutiques called Tight Assets in downtown Laguna. Miller had not been at the party. She was told about it by friend Carol Lee, of Newport Beach, who did attend. Fast forward, Miller’s offer was generous. Following three months of tests, on Nov. 17, 2017, Heidi donated her kidney to me.

Heidi Miller in hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai awaiting transplant surgery.
Heidi Miller in hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles awaiting transplant surgery.
(Courtesy of Heidi Miller)

Five years later, delayed by pandemic, with the uber-generous passion and support of Carole Pickup, the Life Savers Foundation of Orange County will finally be a reality. It’s purpose, to simplify, is to raise funds to grant financial assistance to potential living organ donors who wish to donate life but need financial support to do so.

Costs such as time off work, travel, housing, food, personal expenses, and more are not covered for donors by insurance. It is illegal for recipients to pay for an organ or to pay for costs associated with the gift.

On the evening of Thursday, Jan. 19, the official launch will take place in the same ballroom where it all began. Hosted cocktails and a fabulous multicourse prime rib dinner and dessert will welcome guests coming to help me and Heidi “pay it forward” to help others in Orange County.

Jerry Mandel and the Irvine Barkley Jazz Band will return, and I will join the band as singer of American standards. We will share more information on what is the latest in medicine on transplantation and then we will ask for donations. No boring auction nor long, drawn-out speeches.

Please consider joining the launch. All are welcome. Tickets are $250. For reservations and information contact Heidi Miller at heidimillerkidneydonor@gmail.com or call (949) 933-4606. Life Savers Foundation of Orange County is a registered 501c3 nonprofit charitable organization. All proceeds will directly benefit the grant program.

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