Scott Snyder hopes to thank the person whose pancreas and kidney have helped him stay alive for the last decade.
"This is where I'll start to lose it," he says softly, pausing to regain his composure. "I think about my donor every day."
Snyder, 61, underwent double-organ transplant surgery at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden on Jan. 28, 2005.
Since then, he has welcomed two grandchildren, retired after 30 years of teaching industrial arts at Eastern Regional High School, and partially restored the 19th-century Lindenwold home where we sit down to talk.
"I was 27 when I got Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes," Snyder says. "Before then, I was never sick. I never had a stitch. I never had a broken bone."
His pancreas was not producing enough insulin, which required him to begin regulating his blood sugar with four daily injections. Snyder did well until his kidney function declined; his name was put on transplant lists in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 2003.
About 18 months later, he was teaching a wood-shop class to about 25 Eastern students when he got a call from his wife, Dolores.
A donor had been found through the Gift of Life program in Philadelphia. They had to move quickly.
"It was strange. I felt the calmest I ever felt," Snyder recalls. "I said: 'OK, Lord. It's up to you.' That night, I was on the table."
A Lourdes transplant team led by surgeon Nasser Youssef worked on him for "five or six hours," says Snyder, who makes a spreading motion across his chest. "Remember biology class, with the frog? That's how I envision myself, being peeled back. I had 64 staples from sternum to pelvis."
Eight days later, Snyder went home. Twelve weeks later, he returned to the classroom. He's been doing well ever since. "It's a credit to Scott and his wife and, of course, to the team," says Lourdes post-transplant nurse Patricia Walsh.
"Receiving a pancreas is a big deal, because [the recipient] never has to take insulin again. It's a very significant change in their lives."
Lourdes, a major regional transplant center, does just a handful of kidney-pancreas operations annually. Although a kidney can be donated by a living person, a pancreas can be harvested only after death from someone already enrolled in a donor program.
One way to encourage donations is to publicly recognize donors and their families. But many, if not most, prefer to remain anonymous - even from recipients.
"As part of the education process, we give all of our recipients the tools" to indirectly contact donors or their families, Walsh says. "We give them information and sample letters. It's totally optional."
Letters are sent by the transplant center to the organ procurement agency, which forwards them to donors or their families.
"We have many patients who reach out," Walsh says. "Some receive information back, and some don't. On occasion, recipients do meet with a donor or their family."
Gift of Life spokesman John Green says it has become more common in recent years for recipients, and donors, to ask to communicate. "We encourage both sides to write when, and if, they're ready," he says. "Sometimes recipients hear from donors many years later."
Snyder, a committed Christian who rides motorcycles, says that in the first years after his transplant, he twice tried to reach his donor's family by letter. "I have to assume that it got to them, and I just figured they're not comfortable."
"I completely understood," he adds. "I knew what it took for me to write the letter. It's got to be tough for them to open it and read it."
He's telling his story publicly on the chance that the donor family might see it. And with 5,000 Garden State residents awaiting organ or tissue donations, according to the NJ Sharing Network, he hopes to encourage more people to enroll in donation programs.
"Maybe someone reading this will say, 'Why shouldn't I?' "
For information, visit www.njsharingnetwork.org.