Mid-America Transplant Wins 2nd Baldrige Award for Helping Organ Donation

When asked if the kids at her school know about her heart transplant, 10-year-old Lyla Valentine has to stop and think before listing just a few friends.

It’s not that it’s a secret – on the contrary, Lyla and her father, Rocky, are both recipients and active in organ donation advocacy – it’s just that Lyla was able to grow up and lead a relatively normal life.

“Lyla was 9 months old when she was transplanted so her scar is in great condition and we were very, very lucky she had no issues,” Rocky Valentine said. “Apart from taking medication a few times a day and going to the doctor for checkups, she’s had a very normal life, and no restrictions either.”

As part of their advocacy, the Valentines have been involved with Mid-America Transplant since 2015, an organ procurement organization that received its second Baldridge Quality Award earlier this month. Rocky previously served on the board of the Mid-America Transplant Foundation.

“We are uniquely humbled and honored to kick off National Gift of Life Month by being recognized as one of the nation’s model organizations for quality and performance improvement,” said Diane Brockmeier, President and CEO. from the leadership of Mid-America Transplant, in a press release. “Everything we do comes back to our mission to save more lives. We realized that while we were trying to improve as an organization people were dying on the waiting list, so we adopted the Baldrige Excellence Framework in 2003.”

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The Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award is “the highest level of national recognition for performance excellence” a company in the United States can receive, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Mid-America Transplant received its first award in 2015.

Jay Guffey, former chief operating officer of Mercy Hospital Springfield, is now treasurer and board secretary of Mid-America Transplant.

During his time with Mercy, he ran operating rooms and worked closely with organizations like Mid-America Transplant when someone went to donate their organs. In the past, organ harvesting took place at the local hospital, then the organs were packaged and transported to the recipient. Guffey said Mid-America Transplant changed the process — for the better.

Rocky Valentine and her daughter Lyla, 10, both received heart transplants, 12 years apart.  Rocky received his transplant when he was in middle school and Lyla received hers before she was a year old.

In 2001, Mid-America Transplant built the first free-standing organ recovery center in St. Louis. The donors are taken there, so they are closer to the recipients.

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“Their process is always against the clock, but they were able to shorten the time to do it,” Guffey said, “ultimately if someone is in that kind of situation to commit to donating their organs, he wants (the organs) to survive. They want the best to happen for (the organs).”

Rocky Valentine said connection is also important for recipients.

“To have a transplant and have an organ from someone…it’s pretty awesome to be able to carry on what they’ve lost for their families,” he said. “It’s quite powerful and it gets you, it gets you thinking about what you can do and the experiences we have because (donors) have lost it, and to make sure we’re doing important things and that we are working well with what we received.”

Since his transplant — turning 22 in July — Rocky Valentine has seen and heard more people talk about organ donation.

“It’s increasingly common to hear of families making the decision to donate, so hopefully these are people who are sharing their stories and communicating that and knowing the benefits of it,” Rocky said.

Mid-America Transplant also connects donor families to resources, such as the Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield. In 2018, Lost & Found was one of five bereavement programs that received $300,000 from Mid-America Transplant’s annual community grant program.

Rocky Valentine and her 10-year-old daughter Lyla say they had a heart transplant.  Rocky received his transplant when he was in middle school and Lyla received hers before she was a year old.

“There are organizations out there that help deal with the grief of lost loved ones – it’s usually an unexpected loss – so it’s good to see the promotion of that too, and to really stick together around those who made those decisions,” Rocky said.

Guffey has witnessed how difficult the decision to donate a loved one’s organs can be for a family.

Even though someone has marked on their driver’s license that they are an organ donor, Guffey encouraged people to have the conversation with their family.

“Make this conversation known and have it ahead of time. Nobody wants to talk about their own disappearance, but it’s important,” Guffey said. “If you know what your loved one wants, then the ability to honor that is just another tangible way to say, ‘I love you, I care about you.'”

Susan Szuch is the health and public policy reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on Twitter @szuchsm. Story idea? Email him at sszuch@gannett.com.

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