Locals thankful for organ donations

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

More and more adults in Sherburne County, when they renew or apply for driver’s licenses or other state IDs, have agreed to be organ or tissue donors in the event of their passing.

Tom Hovorka’s illness and surgery led him to retire early from what had been a 30-year career with Green Giant (now Silgan). His defibrillator could not be around the industrial machinery.

The county is a true state leader in considering the gift of life, and Jeff Richert, community partnership coordinator for LifeSource in St. Paul, addressed the Sherburne County Board last month to report the county is one of the first two in Minnesota to reach a level where 60 percent of residents have agreed to be donors. Carver County, southwest of Minneapolis, is the other.

LifeSource manages and encourages organ and tissue donation in Minnesota, North and South Dakota and parts of western Wisconsin.

Richert was joined for his presentation by two Sherburne County men who owe their continuing lives to organ donation — Tom Hovorka of Zimmerman and Vern Iverson of Elk River. Both of the men are within months of 10-year anniversaries of receiving new hearts that originally belonged to other Minnesota men who were decades younger.

Hovorka had no symptoms of problems with his original heart before he suffered cardiac arrest one day in 1997, at age 59, at his previous home in Shakopee.

He was fit with a defibrillator at the University of Minnesota, and then returned for more surgery and a new defibrillator three years later. The defibrillator could not overcome what became congestive heart failure. “I was just tired,” Hovorka told the Star News. “I’d get tired shaving.”

Vern Iverson in a photo snapped at his place of employment. He has spoken to many students about his transplant, something he has found very rewarding.

He received a left ventricle assist device in June 2002 and got a call for surgery and the gift of a heart Jan. 13, 2003. The donor was a 21-year-old male, a Winona-area native and Winona State University student, who died Jan. 12 from injuries sustained in a traffic accident. The young man had walked away from the site and lived for several days, but he began to suffer headaches and was diagnosed with brain hemorrhaging, Hovorka said.

Iverson’s journey through defibrillators and eventual heart transplantation began with a cardiomyopathy diagnosis. “The muscles of my heart were becoming weaker and weaker, and it could no longer pump out enough blood,” he said.

The heart entered fibrillation Aug. 8, 2000, and that day he was fitted with a defibrillator. His replacement heart came April 9, 2003, from the body of a Cloquet-area high school student, 16, who had been in a traffic accident in late March and was kept on life support through April 8.

Iverson had a professional role in sustaining his life before receiving the new heart, as during his career in research and development for Medtronic he worked on designing the defibrillator lead that wound up in his chest.

Hovorka and Iverson each met the respective families of their donors several years after their surgeries, and they have supported LifeSource’s efforts by speaking to groups on the benefits of organ and tissue donation.

Iverson has spoken to many high school and middle school health classes. “That’s been very, very rewarding, very fulfilling,” he said. “The kids that I’m talking to have very good questions.” He finds that among those teens with driver’s licenses, more than half are already registered as donors.

In 2010, Iverson addressed a conference of the International Transplant Nurses Society at a Bloomington hotel. He has co-presented some of his talks alongside Beth Sandstrom, whose son Mark was Iverson’s heart donor. Iverson estimates that at one point he was giving up to three presentations monthly on organ and tissue donation, but he has since returned to Medtronic and cut back on his speaking engagements.

Hovorka’s illness and surgery led him to retire early from what had been a 30-year career with Green Giant, now Silgan. He could not continue working around industrial machinery with a defibrillator, he said.

He said he is not the most confident of public speakers so he does not agree to as many speaking forums as others. He did address family and friends on the subject at his 70th birthday celebration, and in 2012 he shared his story with high school classmates at their 55-year reunion in Shakopee. Hovorka has filled other hours with community service, being active with the Zimmerman Lions Club and the local Knights of Columbus.

Both Hovorka and Iverson have returned to athletic interests. Hovorka keeps a local gym membership and noted that he joined friends for a recent ATV four-wheeling weekend near Bruno, Minn. Iverson participates in biking, hiking, swimming and downhill skiing. The men both say they would like to have more time for those activities.

They appear happiest, however, to be here for their families, including wives, children and grandchildren. “I got to walk my daughter down the wedding aisle,” said Hovorka. “I didn’t (always) think I was going to do that.”

Iverson is proud to note that he and his wife, Lea, and their adult children all had agreed to be donors before Iverson’s surgeries. Hovorka registered as a donor after his surgeries with encouragement from his wife, Sharon.

“There’s so much that they can use these days,” said Hovorka.

LifeSource reports that one person’s organs and tissues, regardless of a person’s age and overall health, could benefit up to 60 other individuals. Surgeons can transplant hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, pancreases and intestines, eyes, skin, bone and other connective tissues. Richert says donor organs from a male could be implanted in a female patient, and vice versa. “Organs are allocated on the basis of blood type, tissue type and organ size, for the most part,” he said.

A new name is added to a transplant waiting list every 12 minutes. Richert said there are almost 2,900 names on organ waiting lists in Minnesota, and nearly 116,000 nationwide.

He credits Hovorka, Iverson, donors’ surviving family members and other advocates for building awareness. “The more people who support donations, and who register as donors, we hope the more gifts will be given, the more organ transplants will take place,” Richert said.

For more on LifeSource’s work, and organ and tissue donation, visit www.life-source.org.