Organ donor advocate practices what he preaches
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 4:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 8:43 p.m.
After more than 25 years of speaking out about donating organs, Terry Dennis gave the gift himself — so his son Matt could have a second organ transplant.
This time, Terry gave one of his kidneys.
The 59-year-old retired Jacksonville Fire Department battalion chief has been a tireless advocate of organ and blood donation — even pedaling a bicycle from Seattle to Florida to spread the message.
His motivation stems in large part from his 28-year-old son Matt Dennis, who was just 3 years old in 1986 when he underwent Florida’s first pediatric heart transplant at Shands at the University of Florida.
On Friday, sitting next to Matt, again a transplant patient at UF&Shands after their Wednesday operation, Terry was asked how it felt to give the gift of life.
“A pain,” he said.
But then he laughed, glanced at his grinning son and said it helped with holiday shopping.
“I didn’t have to give him a sweater this Christmas,” dad said.
Matt’s first transplant donor was an 18-month-old Midwesterner who had died in an automobile accident. The timing could not have been closer.
Because of a condition known as cardiomyopathy — a sudden deterioration in his heart muscle’s ability to function — doctors had given Matt only 12 hours to live.
Terry said there was no time to ponder his son undergoing Florida’s first pediatric heart transplant.
“There was some drugs that could have helped, but he reacted violently to them,” Terry said. “It was either do this (transplant) or it was over.”
Matt, now a Jacksonville stockbroker, doesn’t remember being sick as a youngster. But he does remember unstrapping himself from a gurney so he could look out the helicopter window as they flew from Jacksonville to Gainesville.
“I remember, I was in a helicopter and I wanted to look out the window,” he said.
Relatives say that Matt has done a lot with his heart — graduating from the University of North Florida with a master’s in business administration, skiing black-diamond trails downhill and whitewater rafting.
Last January, though, routine blood work was beginning to show that the anti-rejection drugs he had been taking to keep his heart healthy were destroying his kidney function.
F. Jay Fricker, chief of Pediatric Cardiology and director of the Pediatric Cardiology Fellowship Training Program who has been Matt’s heart doctor, said that subsequent medical thinking has refined the dosages of anti-rejection drugs since Matt first got them — and that his new kidney likely won’t face the same threats.
“The (anti-rejection) drug was first available in 1980-81,” he said. “We know much more about it now.”
But Matt said he resisted the notion that his kidneys were failing.
“I didn’t feel bad at all — it was just numbers on the chart telling me my kidneys were failing,” he said. “I’m kind of jaded around doctors.”
But Terry said he told his son he was ready to donate. The human body needs just one kidney to run properly.
In May, around Matt’s birthday, a nephrologist gave him a bleak outlook: get a kidney transplant or dialysis.
So, Terry Dennis’ youngest child asked him if he was serious about being willing to give up a kidney. He said yes.
“He handed me the papers right then,” Terry said.
Terry said he’s glad to be part of the miracle of life, another chance for his son to live a full life.
“I have more to give,” Terry said, smiling. “But I’ll have to be deceased.”