HUNTINGDON MEANS BUSINESS: The Business of Saving Lives
PROFILE: Four Alumni Share Stories of Hope for National Donate Life Month
Photo caption: From left: Dima Pacha McCuiston ’99, Jarryd Keene ’12, Teresa Carver Ham ’85, and Cindy Smith Stoffregen ’92
When the Perry family of Louisiana, tried and true LSU Tiger fans, tragically lost their six-month-old son, John Clarke, they made the decision to give the gift of life to others through donation of his organs. In neighboring state Alabama, six-month-old Davis Boswell’s parents, tried and true Auburn Tiger fans, waited and hoped as their son’s condition worsened, in desperate need of a heart transplant. And that’s how the heart of one little tiger became the heart of another little tiger. The two families later united over the football rivalry that divides many in the two states and continue working together to inspire others to donate life through organ and tissue donation.
In healthcare, the business of organ, eye, and tissue donation and transplantation is somewhat a high-wire act: tiptoeing on a tightrope between one family’s worst nightmare and despair and another patient’s only hope for survival or normalcy. In the United States, there are 57 organ procurement organizations (OPOs) approved by the federal government, and 83 eye banks. Four Huntingdon alumni work on the staffs of two of those organizations, Advancing Sight Network and Legacy of Hope. Both organizations are based in Birmingham.
Teresa Carver Ham ’85 serves as the chief administrative officer for Advancing Sight Network, overseeing accounting, human resources, marketing, and education. She also serves the donation community at large as the secondary team leader and treasurer for Donate Life Alabama, a collaboration of Advancing Sight and Legacy of Hope to educate the community on the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation; as chair of the Eye Bank Association of America’s Donor, Partner, and Community Relations Committee; and as vice-chair of Donate Life America’s Advisory Committee.
“My favorite story is from a cornea recipient who is also a member of a donor family,” says Teresa. “Kim tells the story of her mom being a huge supporter of organ donation who encouraged her family to become donors. Kim remembers feeling disappointed when, following her mom’s death, she could only donate her mother’s corneas due to her mom’s medical condition. Kim didn’t understand how significant that gift was until years later when she unexpectedly needed a cornea transplant. A serious eye injury left Kim blind in one eye. [Because of the transplant] her vision is restored. She says, ‘My cornea donor’s selfless gift means everything to me and my family.’ Kim is a wife, a mother of six, and an artist.”
All four alumni who work in the donation field arrived in their roles from far different paths traveled after graduation from Huntingdon. Teresa, a marketing major, Chi Omega, Student Government Association public relations chair and Huntingdon Ambassador at HC, graduated with no idea what she wanted to do professionally, so she stayed put, serving as an admission counselor. “I wanted to share with other potential students what it was like to be a Huntingdon Hawk,” she says. After marriage to her Huntingdon sweetheart, James Ham ’85, and working in a few other sales positions, she transitioned to human resources and then, in 2002, to the nonprofit world with Advancing Sight Network.
“Advancing Sight Network’s mission is to provide sight to the visually impaired through transplant and research,” says Teresa. “Every day I get to be a part of the miracle of helping someone see. It’s really a gift of hope. The stories that I hear and the donor families and recipients that I have the privilege of meeting give extraordinary meaning and purpose to the work that I do. One of my personal values is to be a light to others. My work at Advancing Sight allows me to literally be a part of the process of bringing light into the lives of others!”
Dima Pacha McCuiston ’99 joined Advancing Sight Network recently after nine years as a pharmaceutical representative and work in the nonprofit sector for the cause of diabetes. A human performance and kinesiology major at Huntingdon, Dima was the number one player on the tennis team for three of her four years (most valuable player and senior captain, as well), a member of Alpha Omicron Pi, vice president for College Republicans, and chair of the Panhellenic Council. Always having a heart to help, she cocreated and hosted SuperSports Saturdays with Dr. Lisa Olenik Dorman, teaching children with disabilities play and movement through wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, and swimming. Today, in addition to her work as vice president of partner relations with Advancing Sight Network, she has served as a health, fitness, and Zumba instructor for the YMCA. “I love working for a mission to help others with the gift of sight and to find cures for those struggling with eye disease in Alabama and all over the world,” she says.
Jarryd Keene ’12 and Cindy Smith Stoffregen ’92 work with Legacy of Hope, where he is a partner services liaison, and she is the regulatory compliance coordinator. Jarryd is responsible for building relationships with key hospital personnel while helping to define, shape, and guide individuals’ roles in the donation process. Cindy ensures that the organization maintains compliance with federal regulations and sustains accreditation through the American Association of Tissue Banks by managing the internal audit program.
“Legacy of Hope is a nonprofit organization that is the federally designated organ procurement organization for the state of Alabama,” says Jarryd. “We coordinate organ and tissue donation for transplant and research. Legacy of Hope is a mission-driven organization that builds broad-reaching alliances to educate people about the importance of organ and tissue donation. As an organ procurement organization, we are an entity legally permitted to recover organs from deceased donors and provide support to donor families. We also play a role in identifying potential organ donors, requesting authorization from donor families, procuring organs, working closely with other agencies to identify potential transplant recipients, and coordinating the transfer of recovered organs to transplant hospitals. Legacy of Hope consists of a leadership team, administrative team, multiple clinical teams, public education, family care, professional education, and a quality team that all play vital roles in our daily success as an organization.”
“There are currently more than 100,000 people in the U.S. waiting to receive a life-saving organ transplant, 1,233 of whom are in Alabama,” says Cindy. “The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) maintains a database of all potential organ recipients nationwide. Before an organ is allocated, all transplant candidates on the waiting list who are incompatible with the donor because of blood type, height, weight, and other medical factors are automatically screened from any potential matches. Then the computer application determines the order the other candidates will receive offers, according to national policies maintained by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). Blood type and other medical factors weigh into the allocation of every donated organ, but there are other factors that are unique to each organ type, such as waiting time, medical need, and distance from the donor hospital. Once the gifts are placed, Legacy of Hope’s procurement transplant coordinator arranges for the procurement and typically within 48–72 hours the gifts are transplanted into the recipients.”
For eye and tissue donations, there are fewer medical restrictions. Once a potential donor is identified, Advancing Sight and Legacy of Hope share a call center that screens the patient’s medical history to determine if they are medically eligible to be a donor, explains Teresa. “Eye donation is not as restrictive as organ donation in that there is no match necessary for age, gender, race, blood type, etc. If a patient is eligible and is a registered donor, the family is notified and the recovery logistics are coordinated.”
“To comply with federal regulations all OPOs must be non-profit organizations,” says Cindy. “There is no financial cost to any family to donate their loved one’s organs, eyes, or tissues, and current legislation regarding donation does not allow an OPO to provide any type of compensation to the donor family heroes who selflessly give the gift of life to others.”
“I had absolutely no knowledge of the organ procurement world when I graduated from college,” says Jarryd, who majored in athletic training/sports medicine, was an athlete on the men’s soccer team, and shadowed the College’s Certified Athletic Trainers with the intention of following that career path. But he needed a job as he planned marriage to his Huntingdon love, Noele Mathis ’12, and through direction from the Center for Career and Vocation he matched with Motivated Movers, where he advanced from driver/crew chief to general manager during the next seven years. He then joined the staff of Allyalign Health as a client services advocate, and then moved to Legacy of Hope in October 2020. “I will say my career plan when I graduated versus now is far off from what I had expected. However, I believe my personal goals and values have stayed consistent. I have always had intentions for my career to be focused on service to others, while working in some capacity of health and safety.”
Like Jarryd and Teresa, Cindy also married her Huntingdon sweetheart, Edward (Trey) Stoffregen III ’92. She says, “To this day my college friends are still my best friends, including my husband.” A psychology major, Cindy was active in the Environmental Awareness and Action Club and the Behavioral Sciences Club, and a Jan Term course that took her on a trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas led to a continuing friendship with emeritus English professor Dr. Richard Anderson. “I loved my classes, my professors, the dorm experience, and my friends. I was challenged academically at Huntingdon, and I grew intellectually and emotionally during my time there.” After graduation, Cindy worked in behavioral health, earning a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, licensure as a professional counselor (LPC), and an Education Specialist degree. Work in the quality improvement office of a psychiatric practice opened the door for her entry into the field of healthcare compliance. She joined Legacy of Hope in 2017.
“In looking back, I realize my personal and professional growth was only possible because I took advantage of opportunities as they arose, even if they didn’t exactly follow what seemed a ‘normal’ career path given my licensure,” says Cindy. “I think a liberal arts education simply nurtured my natural tendencies to be curious and open-minded, and to not let fear or uncertainty hold me back.”
“I have no doubt that my liberal arts education at Huntingdon helped me prepare for the professional world,” agrees Jarryd. “It allowed me to understand the importance of thinking outside the box. In the professional world I believe you must be well-rounded and always willing to adapt to the environment around you. A lot of the important skills I learned at Huntingdon aren’t taught at most colleges.”
“I loved that I had the freedom to explore lots of academic interests unrelated to my major [at Huntingdon],” says Teresa. “I grew up in a faith-based family and was active in my small-town church. The ‘required’ religion classes taught me so much more! In addition, I was able to explore interests in political science, art and philosophy. It gave me a chance to spread my wings and see what my true interests and passions really were.”
Dima says she loved the diverse curriculum, allowing her to explore history, religion, psychology, literature, and art in addition to her major. “I loved the small campus, loved my teachers … classes outside on the Green … the computer I got when I started, and the travel and Jan Term opportunities!”
For all four alumni, the Huntingdon motto, “Enter to grow in wisdom, go forth to apply wisdom in service,” has either served as a cornerstone or put words to a belief they held before coming to Huntingdon.
“I think it is so important to take all of life’s lessons (wisdom) and find a way to share them with others (service). I have tried to make that a hallmark in both my personal and professional life by mentoring and coaching and giving back to the community in which I live and work,” says Teresa.
“God blessed me at a young age with the drive to always listen and learn in everything I do and every encounter I experience in life,” says Jarryd. “I believe I have always been prepared to go into things with the mentality of gaining wisdom. I do believe that once the Huntingdon motto became a part of my everyday life it played a huge role in helping me actually understand the importance of how to truly apply my wisdom in service. This has definitely helped me excel in my professional career and beyond.”
To each of these alumni, their work is a mission that brings hope, inspired by the selfless acts of the donors and donor families. “I can’t say enough about our donor families,” says Cindy. “In the moment of utmost despair they choose to focus on the legacy their loved one could leave behind.” One of Cindy’s favorite stories is of Jan Jones, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 8. At 37 her kidneys began to fail and she needed a transplant. “Jan was blessed with a kidney-pancreas transplant on May 18, 2011, and she has never looked back. She lives a life full of gratitude for her donor. Since her transplant, she started her own business, has gotten married, and spends much of her free time advocating for organ, eye, and tissue donations.”
Teresa shares the story of Danny, an 18-year-old man who was diagnosed with a disease that causes vision to worsen rapidly. “Within a week, Danny was on an operating table receiving a corneal transplant in one eye, and he would later undergo another transplant in the other eye. His vision was saved by two generous donors who made his sight-saving transplants possible. Later, when Danny’s father-in-law needed a kidney transplant, he felt called to give back. He was a match, and gratefully agreed to be a living kidney donor. His father-in-law’s surgery was successful, and Danny says the decision to donate was easy. He said, ‘You never lose in life when you make the choice to give.’”
April is National Donate Life Month. Becoming an organ, eye, and tissue donor in Alabama is as simple as visiting www.registerme.org, registering on the health app on your iPhone, or making the designation when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. Be sure to share your donation decision with your family. For questions about organ or tissue donation, contact Legacy of Hope at www.legacyofhope.org or (800) 252-3677. For questions about eye donation, contact Advancing Sight Network at www.advancingsight.org or (800) 423-7811.