The Gift of Life: Better Than Any Diamond

April 22, 2014
Latrisha and her boyfriend Chris

Latrisha and her boyfriend Chris

Better than any diamond, Latrisha Beckwith received the ultimate gift of love from her boyfriend, Chris, on Valentine’s Day 2012.

“Most girls get a ring. I got a kidney,” she says with a smile.

The couple met two years before, soon after Latrisha relocated to Chicago from California. Stress from the move, finding a job and adjusting to a new city left her feeling ill with little energy left over to think about dating.

“Love was the farthest thing from my mind, but Cupid was already busy working,” she recalls. “I fought it, but Chris was vehemently persistent as if he knew something that I did not.”

Latrisha found a job, but she continued to feel ill. During a health screening at work, her blood pressure was alarmingly high. She was admitted to a hospital, where tests showed she had been living with lupus for some time. The disease left both kidneys with minimal function. She was just 30 years old.

“Chris and I had only been together for four months,” Latrisha says. “I didn’t expect him to stick around after all of the physical changes, like the loss of my hair due to medication. But he proved me wrong. He was with me at the hospital every single day.”

Chris even offered to donate his kidney: He was a donor match.

Latrisha and Chris on Valentine's Day prior to surgery.

Latrisha and Chris on Valentine’s Day prior to surgery.

Instead of pursuing that course, Latrisha, a “silent skeptic,” decided to sign up for the organ transplant waiting list, preparing for a wait of three to five years. Nearly two years of challenging and draining dialysis treatments followed. She tired easily and had to coordinate her life around dialysis treatments and restrictions needed to stay alive.

By Valentine’s Day, Latrisha decided to accept Chris’s offer, her name was officially removed from the transplant list and Chris gave Latrisha the gift of life as a living donor. The two recovered well from the surgeries, and Latrisha has noticed a remarkable difference since receiving her transplant.

The final glance between Chris and Latrisha prior to transplant.

The final glance between Chris and Latrisha prior to transplant.

“I’ve got get up and go now,” she says. “Before, I would get tired walking a few blocks or even up a flight of stairs. Now, I feel better than ever. I enjoy life without limits.”

Latrisha says she wants to share her story and make people aware of the urgent need for donors. “Every 10 minutes, another name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list, and more than 120,000 people, including 5,000 in Illinois, are waiting for transplants. Sadly, 18 people die each day waiting.”

Everyone can help by becoming a registered organ and tissue donor, Latrisha says. “Say ‘yes” when you get or renew your driver’s license or register your decision at GiftofHope.org.”


30 Stories in 30 Days: A Father/Daughter Donation Journey

April 17, 2013
The Taylor Family

The Taylor Family

“There aren’t many people who can say they grew up knowing they would be an organ donor,” said Quinetta Taylor. “For me, even as a little girl, I knew that, not only was organ donation important, but it was something very special that would mean a lot to someone. At that time, that someone was my father.”

Quinetta’s father was diagnosed with kidney failure before she was born. She grew up watching him go to dialysis three times a week. When she was 16, she saw the toll that long-term dialysis had taken on him and decided to give him one of her kidneys. “When I made this decision, my father was already listed,” she explained. “Before I could give him the gift of life, someone else did.”

Then things changed in Quinetta’s life. While at college she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. “I was entering a world I knew plenty about, but this time I was on the receiving end,” she said. “I could no longer help my father because somehow his lifestyle had now become my own.”

In November 2009, her father’s transplanted kidney began to fail, and he returned to dialysis. Two months later, Quinetta joined him. “When transplantation was first introduced to me, I needed to lose a little over 150 pounds,” she said. “After three years of hard work and losing 120 pounds, I was officially listed in March.” Her father is also going through the process of meeting eligibility requirements to being listed.

“That’s why National Donate Life Month is so special to me,” she explained. “Someone has the opportunity to give my father and me the gift of life.”


30 Stories in 30 Days: Kevin’s Life Song

April 11, 2013
Kevin Smith's love of music helped sustain him through two kidney transplants.

Kevin Smith’s love of music helped sustain him through two kidney transplants.

In May 1989, Kevin Smith was 29, married with three daughters and a musician in Los Angeles when he went entered the emergency room at Harbor General UCLA Medical Center. His blood pressure was 322/218, and he had been suffering from severe headaches, blurred vision and nausea.

He was diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, a tumor that causes the adrenal glands to produce high levels of hormones and raises a person’s blood pressure and heart rate. Kevin was told that his long-term hypertension had caused his kidneys to shrink. “What I wasn’t told, and later found out, was that this often leads to kidney failure,” he said.

Kevin moved to Illinois to be near his family and its support system. Soon after the move, he had another major episode and was diagnosed with kidney failure. He was given emergency dialysis for five days to get stabilized. Then he started routine dialysis and went on the kidney transplant list.

Almost two years later, a donor kidney became available, and he had a kidney transplant. But major complications ensued. That led to seven more operations and, eventually, organ rejection. “I went back on dialysis, and it took several months until I was healthy enough to be placed back on the transplant waiting list,” he said.

Thanks to a selfless donor, Kevin is able to pursue his passion of music.

Thanks to a selfless donor, Kevin is able to pursue his passion of music.

His waiting time was anything but unproductive. During his time on dialysis, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Then, in 1994, he received another call and went to Memorial Medical Center in Springfield for a successful kidney transplant.

It has been more than 18 years since his transplant, and everything today is good. “I’m working in education with at-risk children, I’m still playing music and, most wonderful of all, I’m spending time with my three daughters and five grandchildren,” Kevin said.

Share Your Life Song


30 Stories in 30 Days: Amy and Jessica Cowin

April 5, 2013
Jessica (left) and Amy (right) Cowin share a special bond through living donation

Jessica (left) and Amy (right) Cowin share a special bond through living donation

Jessica Cowin was born with a rare heart condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome. By the time she was five, she had endured three major surgeries. The initial results were good. “I was active in my youth,” she said, “but I eventually noticed that I wasn’t like most kids because I couldn’t keep up.”

When she was 13, she nearly collapsed one day doing some strenuous activities. “I couldn’t catch my breath, the room was spinning and my heart was pounding,” she explained. She went through another surgery to repair her heart and insert a pacemaker, but she continued to experience weakness and fatigue.

At 16, she learned that her only option was a heart transplant. After only three weeks on the transplant waiting list, Jessica had her surgery and afterward “felt healthy, full of breath and energy.” But three years later, she learned that her medications caused gallbladder problems, and she had another operation to remove that organ.

Amy and Jessica were close friends from the start.

Amy and Jessica were close friends from the start.

With no gallbladder and feeling great, she finished her liberal arts degree. But in 2008, she again had symptoms and learned that her kidneys were functioning at only 10 percent: She needed a kidney transplant.

Jessica’s sister, Amy, was a close match and insisted on helping as a living donor. “Amy’s left kidney now sits on my right side,” Jessica said. “I can’t take a photo with her standing on any side but my right because we are a pair of kidneys.”

Now Jessica helps create awareness for organ and tissue donation by telling her story and expressing her gratitude to her donors “for the lifesaving gifts I have received.”


30 Stories in 30 Days: The Ecstasy of Giving

April 2, 2013

Advocate Amber Sanders and her mother

Amber Sanders had planned to be an organ donor but not a living one. Things changed when her mother went into kidney failure.

Amber said she was raised knowing family is the most important thing, and if someone in the family is in need, “You do everything you can to help.” When it was clear that her mother needed a kidney transplant, Amber said, “I instantly knew I would be her donor.”

Amber thought of donating her kidney as an act of giving back. “I never looked at this as me giving Mom my kidney,” she said. “This was always her kidney. I was holding onto it for this exact moment.”

Sheila&Amber

Amber and her mother prepped for transplant

Although it is uncommon for a parent/child to be an exact match, the tests were positive. “To have us be a perfect match confirmed this was the right thing to do,” Amber said. “I was ecstatic!”

The donation process was tedious, but in the end Amber said, “Every bit of it was worth it to see my mom healthy.” She pointed out that having the support of her family, friends and church community helped.

“The best part is that now my mom says she no longer feels like she’s 63,” Amber said. “Now that she has a 30-year-old kidney, she’s found the fountain of youth.” Amber is now an Advocate for Hope for Gift of Hope. “I want people to know that living organ donation is truly a gift. And to be a blessing to someone else is the best way to live your life.”


Vikki’s Donation Story

April 23, 2012

Vikki Tulcus is an amazing advocate for organ and tissue donation. She has spent the last 10 years of her career building organ and tissue donation awareness and encouraging Illinois residents to register as lifesaving donors. Vikki’s journey within the field of donation became very personal in 2009 when she was diagnosed with a renal disease that will eventually require a kidney transplant.

Throughout April, Vikki is featured in Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s commercial to promote organ and tissue donation. Below, Vikki tells her story in both video and print. 

For the past 10 years, I have worked within the field of organ and tissue donation. My roles have, primarily, allowed me to work with donation recipients and donor families to promote organ and tissue donation throughout Illinois. I began my career with Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network where I gained valuable insight into donation and my eyes were opened to the overwhelming need for registered organ and tissue donors.

In 2007, I joined the Illinois Secretary of State Organ/Tissue Donor Program as the Community Outreach Coordinator for Chicago where I continue to work tirelessly to build organ and tissue donation awareness. My job responsibilities have me traveling the state and working closely with Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White to encourage Illinois residents to register as lifesaving organ and tissue donors.

My personal and professional lives became enmeshed on November 13, 2009, when I became extremely ill. I knew something was drastically wrong when breathing became difficult and I grew too weak to walk. I thought it was just an extreme asthma attack and went to the emergency room after my condition worsened. My situation was critical, and doctors worked to save my life. Within hours, I was diagnosed with Wegner’s Syndrome—a rare, autoimmune disease that is chronic and can be fatal. I was told that I was in renal failure and required immediate dialysis. 

Since that day, my life has changed dramatically. I continue to work full time for the Illinois Secretary of State and juggle the responsibilities of daily life. But, each night, I hook myself up to a machine that spends the next 10 hours doing the work that my kidneys no longer can do. My name has been added to the national transplant waiting list for a kidney. Each day, I hope for my lifesaving gift. Unfortunately, in Illinois, the average wait time for a kidney transplant is approximately seven years.  

As I wait for a new kidney, I find hope in the stories of recipients who are grateful for their second chance at life. When I search for a meaning for my illness, I am inspired by stories of heroes who have selflessly donated their organs and tissue to save others. Each day that I wait, I am hopeful that a donor will save my life.  

– Vikki Tulcus, Community Outreach Coordinator, Illinois Secretary of State’s Organ/Tissue Donor Program

Give Vikki and more than 5,000 Illinois residents a second chance at life by registering your decision to be an organ and tissue donor at DonateLifeIllinois.org! Learn more about Vikki and the Illinois Secretary of State’s Organ/Tissue Donor Program at LifeGoesOn.com.


Enter to Win Brad Paisley Tickets

September 19, 2011

Brad Paisley's latest album "This is Country Music"

Calling all Brad Paisley fans! We have FOUR pairs of tickets to see Brad Paisley live on Wednesday, September 21st at Joe’s Bar in Chicago. And we are giving them away to our amazing Donate Life Illinois fans and followers.

Winning a pair of tickets is easy! All that you need to do is post the following phrase as your Facebook status:

I am a registered organ donor. Are you? More than 110,000 Americans are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. Register in 30 seconds at www.DonateLifeIllinois.org!

Once you post this status, visit the Donate Life Illinois Facebook Page and leave a message on our wall notifying us that you’re awesome and updated your status with the above phrase.

Four winners (each receiving two tickets) will be selected at 12pm CDT on Tuesday, September 20th. Entrants must post a message on the Donate Life Illinois Facebook Page stating that they updated their status. Winners will be posted on the Donate Life Illinois Facebook Page and contacted by a Donate Life Illinois representative to coordinate ticket pick up.

Not a registered organ and tissue donor? Visit DonateLifeIllinois.org to register and save lives!


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