President and CEO of Gift of Life Donor Program honored

Jim Melwert
July 10, 2018 - 1:12 pm
Howard Nathan, president and CEO of Gift of Life Donor Program

Jim Melwert/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Gift of Life Donor Program marked president and CEO Howard Nathan's 40th anniversary with the organization with a celebration Tuesday morning.

It was humble beginnings for Howard Nathan when he was hired in July, 1978, by Steve Sammut at what was then called The Delaware Valley Transplant Program.

"He basically said, I really want this job, and I will work for free until you can afford to pay me,'" Sammut said.

Since then, the organization has coordinated more than 40,000 organ transplants and about 1 million tissue transplants.

“You know, the power of donation and transplant is really the power of what life’s about," Nathan said. "It’s about people helping people. It’s about neighbor helping neighbor.”

Among those, 14-year-old Michael McVey, who donated his liver, kidney, and corneas after he died from injuries in a rope swing accident. His mother, Sue, says with support from Howard and Gift of Life, she’s been able to travel the country sharing her son’s story.

“Howard believed in me, and he believed in our story," McVey said. "I’m pretty sure we saved a few lives."

When Michael died, surgeons were ordered to wait until brain activity stopped, which would have made the organs unusable. But the McVeys pressed doctors to take his organs as soon as his heart stopped, after he was pulled from life support, a groundbreaking process at the time, now known as DCD, or donation after cardiac death.

“Probably close to 35,000 people have gotten transplants from DCDs all across this country. Those organs would have been buried,” said transplant surgeon Clyde Barker, a Gift of Life co-founder. Barker calls the growth and success of transplantation one of the best medical stories of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“Howard and Gift of Life and organizations like it have been one of the most important parts of that story,” Barker said.

Nathan’s work goes well beyond the Philadelphia region.

“I’ve travelled all over the world to give presentations on our best practices here in Philadelphia, and people know who Gift of Life is because of the work of this team.”

Howard Nathan, president and CEO of Gift of Life Donor Program
Gift of Life Donor Program

The more than 200 employees at the nonprofit turned a run-of-the-mill staff meeting into a celebration of Nathan's milestone.

"They really got me," Nathan said. "I just got back from a trip to Spain, and I walked in, and there’s all these balloons and slides about the history of the transplant program."

That trip to Spain is an indicator of his worldwide reputation as an innovator in transplantation, which he boils down to teaching people about compassion behind organ donation.

"Taking death and turning it into new life — there’s nothing more motivating that I could ever imagine," he said.