Receiving a priceless gift

Published 10:12 am Monday, June 14, 2010

Somewhere up in Heaven, a young lady named Courtney is smiling about what she left behind here on Earth.

And here on Earth, several people and their families are eternally grateful for her Heavenly gift.

Joel Zornes is one of those people.

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In late September of last year, Courtney, a 20 year-old female whose last name and hometown is withheld out of respect for her family, was tragically killed in an automobile accident. An honor student majoring in culinary arts, Courtney was also the mother of a baby girl.

As tragic as this scenario must be for her family, they can surely find peace in her thoughtfulness. You see, before her untimely exit from our world, this young lady made a decision that ultimately gave hope to people she would never meet.

Courtney was an organ donor.

Prior to the passing of this young lady, Zornes was suffering with severe physical and psychological pain. He was in renal failure, which means his kidneys had shut down. Adding to his despair, Zornes’ pancreas had also faltered.

A diabetic for 28 years, Zornes, 48, fell into deep depression. While dialysis kept him alive, the grueling tri-weekly, four hour process left him physically drained. And without a functional pancreas to break down and distribute his body’s vital nutrients, Zornes was certain he was looking at a death sentence.

Then the phone rang.

On September 23, 2009, The Ohio State Medical Center contacted Zornes and told him to come to Columbus immediately; they had a blood type match for a kidney and a pancreas.

The following morning, surgery was performed and life began anew for the Ironton resident.

“I was really lucky the way things clicked,” Joel said of the double transplant and its timing, while also showing deep admiration for the young lady who gave him a second chance at life. “We had the same blood type and both of the organs came from her. She gave me my life back.”

His father, Herm Zornes, was at Lawco Lake cutting grass at the family cabin the day the news broke. “I came home and my daughter (Joni Hacker) called and said, “We have to be in Columbus in three hours! They think they found a match.”

Herm, his wife Pat, Joni, and Joel immediately left on a journey that would positively alter all of their lives.

“I believe in healing,” Herm said, adding that many people from the local community as well as in the area surrounding the elder Zornes’ vacation home in Florida prayed for Joel to survive.

“We feel this is a miracle,” he said.

Joel exited surgery without the slightest complication, or even the typical side-effects. “He came out of the operating room without any swelling and wasn’t in much pain,” Herm recalled. “The doctor was amazed.”

Today, Joel Zornes says he feels better than he’s ever felt in his life, even though two of his vital organs aren’t aligned in usual fashion.

His new kidney now rests to the left of his navel, while his pancreas resides on the opposite side.

But to Zornes, being anatomically correct doesn’t matter; living without insulin injections and dialysis does.

“I’ve never felt better,” he said, stating that he no longer has to watch his diet so closely and worry about his blood sugar levels. “I started over at 48.”

Since the rare double transplant, Joel and his sister Joni have become involved with Lifeline of Ohio, an organization devoted to providing vital organs and tissue to those in need. When people sign up as organ donors, it is this organization that goes to bat for those who are battling for their lives.

And you never know when the person doing the battling might be you.

According to information Joel obtained through Lifeline of Ohio, 107,000 people are currently on a waiting list for a vital organ. Strengthening his point that more donors are desperately needed, he noted that eighteen of these people die every day because they couldn’t find a match.

Joni, who has recently taken classes designed to inform and instruct those passionate enough about organ donation to become speakers and advocates for the cause, said the healing of her brother has defined her life purpose.

“My mission now is to spread the word,” she said with vivacity. “I could talk about this all day.”

Which brings us back to Courtney.

“Joel and I went to a candlelight vigil in Columbus (honoring those who had donated organs and saved other people’s lives) and he wore a badge with her picture on it,” Joni said. “A woman noticed the badge and asked, ‘do you know Courtney?’ My brother said, ‘no, but I’m her recipient.’ Then she said, ‘my daughter got her lung!’”

All Courtney did before she died was mark a box ensuring that, in case of the unspeakable, others might benefit.

Thanks to her decision, Joel Zornes is alive today. And so is that woman’s daughter.

“This was a wonderful gift for us,” Joni said. “People need to donate. They need to save lives.”

Those interested in being donors can visit