Driver’s licenses contain important information. Your address, date of birth and a conspicuous pink dot that has life-saving properties.
That pink dot is what makes you a registered organ donor and decides life or death for others. Only it’s not just life or death, but also being part of a family, preserving memories and creating new ones.
“People don’t understand what that pink dot means,” said Lori Malkin, the founder of JJ’s Legacy, an organization that seeks to educate Kern County the importance of organ donation, support donor families and recipients and increase the number of donors in Kern County.
“It’s the greatest gift, the gift of life,” Malkin said.
For Jelani Polk, a two-time kidney recipient, his first transplant gave him the chance to have a life without dialysis — and a family of his own.
“I did a complete 180 from being this gregarious kid to being in solitary confinement,” Polk said, recalling when he first was put on dialysis. Polk had to drop out of college and stop working completely due to renal and respiratory failure caused by his uncontrolled hypertension, which he had since was 13.
He spent a total of 10 years on dialysis. Polk described it as surreal because of how it dictated his everyday life.
“It’s little things like going to the bathroom,” Polk said. “Or planning your entire vacation around this machine,” Polk said. He said the pressure of seeing his family in anguish for his condition was weighing on him.
A week before his first kidney donation, Polk’s hope for a healthy life without dialysis was very dim.
“That kidney lasted for four years,” Polk said. He said that confuses people when he says it was successful. But for Polk, those four years gave him the chance to meet his wife and have five kids.
“It gave me a head start,” Polk said. “Because of my donor I had hope.”
Only 30 percent of Kern County residents are organ donors and there are over 400 people on the donation waiting list, according to One Legacy, a California organ procurement and donor family and recipient support organization.
Organizations like JJ’s Legacy and One Legacy envision the day where anyone who needs an organ or tissue donation to continue being with their family becoming a reality.
Malkin started JJ’s Legacy after her son became an organ donor. “There’s nothing worse than losing a child, but he’s saved five other lives,” Malkin said.
Malkin said that it’s her purpose, she created JJ’s Legacy, which seeks to educate and increase the number of donors in Kern County. “Everyone processes trauma differently,” Malkin said. “As a donor mother, the experience moved me and I wanted to give back and move forward.”
“There’s such a need for donors,” Malkin said.
One organ donor can save up to eight peoples’ lives and one tissue donor can enhance over 75 tissue recipients, according to One Legacy.
And sometimes it can save someone’s life more than once, like Polk.
Polk ended up receiving a second kidney from his cousin, a living donor, which helped him stabilize to where he is today. Polk said he takes various medications like clockwork daily, but it’s nothing compared to being on dialysis.
“I incredibly appreciate them,” Polk said of his donors. “I feel they’re somehow appreciative of you, because you ended up being the right choice, too,” Polk said.
Because of his donations, Polk is able to have a career and be a father and husband. Polk volunteers at his son’s school every week and now gets to plan his vacations around his children instead of a machine.
Despite Polk’s story, being an organ donor can be a down-to-the-wire life-or-death decision. Charles “Chuck” Pruitt, had only been listed for 10 days when he received his liver.
Pruitt had developed Hepatitis D and soon it took control of his ability to remember words, drive or even walk. The ammonia in his system was affecting everything until it all came to a head during August 2014.
“It was a shock to me, when I was told about my donor and that I had received the transplant,” Pruitt said. Pruitt’s donor had been involved in motorcycle accident. “I thought about myself when I was 19, I mean, I rode motorcycles,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt said he thinks of his donor every day. “I think of him as if he was my own son,” Pruitt said.
There’s an undeniable humbling remorse that comes with being an organ donor. Pruitt explained how incredibly grateful he was that he had received his liver, but was still dumbfounded. “Here I am, an old man, at the end of my life, and his (Pruitt’s donor) was just beginning, Pruitt said.
But because of this Pruitt seizes every day.
After his transplant, Pruitt gave himself goals like scooting around in bed, to walking, to making it to 1,000 days. He’s succeeded at all of them. “Life is a gift, believe me,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt now walks about 2 miles every day with his wife, something that had been taken away from him during his sickness. He’s hiked the high Sierras numerous times and was able to see his grandson graduate eighth grade.
“Just being physically well and able to ‘be,’” Pruitt said, “means a lot.”
Like Malkin, Pruitt also was galvanized by his experience to become an advocate in the community. “It’s my way of paying forward; I want to do more,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt also stresses the importance of blood donation, as that was a factor to saving his life when he was going into liver failure. Blood or plasma donations are equally important as the pink dot on your driver’s license – both can save lives, too.
Both Polk and Pruitt, through One Legacy and JJ’s Legacy, speak to different high schools and communities in Kern County telling their stories in hopes of raising awareness and getting closer to having 100 percent of individuals in Kern County being registered donors, instead of 30.
“It only takes one person to save the lives of so many,” Polk said. “It means so much to us.”