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Billings woman encourages organ donation in memory of her late son

April is Donate Life Month
Posted at 4:18 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 12:22:05-04

BILLINGS - Recovery from a severe injury or burn can drastically enhance the quality of someone’s life. That’s the message from a Billings woman who is empowering others to become organ and tissue donors.

April is Donate Life Month.

Roughly 1 in 20 people will need a tissue transplant in their lifetime, so recognition is given to those who have helped extend or enhance the lives of others during this time.

“I feel it's important for people to know that it's okay to donate,” said Kim Shanks. “I think that there's healing power in having your loved one donate.”


Shanks lost her son, TJ Schreiner, in a car crash in 2013. He was 22 years old. TJ was a fiery kid. He had red hair, and "an attitude to go with it,” she said.

When Shanks thinks about her son, she lights up. “He was a helper. He loved his friends, he loved his family, he would have given his shirt off his back to anybody,” she said.

And that’s true because she says TJ opted to become an organ donor. Shanks says when the time came, though, it was the family who made the decision on where his major organs, as well as his tissue, went.

They made sure to fulfill his wishes. “Five major organs were donated, and 29 other skin and bone parts were donated as well,” she said. “His heart went to someone in California. His lungs went to someone in Washington state, as well as his liver is in someone in Washington state as well. There was a kidney in Alaska.”

Life Net Health reports that one donor can save as many as nine lives, and restore eyesight to two people through the donation of corneas and enhance the lives of as many as 150 people through tissue donation. “There are over 110,000 people across the United States that are in desperate need of an organ transplant to live, and so they wait for those opportunities for people to make that decision,” said Life Net Health general manager Chandler Brownlee, who is based in Seattle.

And Montanans lead the nation in donations with roughly 87 percent of the population age 18 and older registered as organ, eye, and tissue donors, according to information listed on the Montana Department of Justice’s website.

“You know, giving the gift of life is something that, you know, is priceless," Brownlee said.

Shanks says the mission of donation is really two-fold, by helping extend or enhance the life of someone else but also empowering the family of a loved one recently passed. “I know our family has healed tremendously,” she said.

Albeit difficult at times. “But to feel like what we were sending out were parts of him, and then letters started coming back, and those parts turned into people and people that had stories and people that had families and knowing the impact he made on those 34 people was huge.”

The LifeCenter Northwest website provides the following information:

  • Currently, there are more than 108,000 people in the United States on the transplant waiting list, including nearly 2,300 of our Northwest neighbors, and sadly 22 of those people die every day. Talking to your loved ones about donation and knowing the facts is the most influential way to spread the word about the beneficial impact of organ, eye, and tissue donation.
  • Myth: I could not be a donor due to age or a medical condition. Fact: Anyone can register their choice to be a donor. No matter your age or health, some of your organs or tissues may be perfectly suitable for transplant. In order for a patient to be eligible for organ donation, they do need to be on ventilated support at the time of their death, and it must occur in a hospital. Upon referral by hospital staff, a recovery organization will evaluate each person individually to determine whether donation is a possibility. Tissue and cornea donation may still be an option if a death occurs outside of a hospital.
  • Myth: Medical professionals won’t try to save my life. Fact: Hospital and emergency personnel are only concerned with saving your life. They do not have access to the confidential donor registry database to even check for donor registration, nor do they make any determination as to whether someone is able to donate. LifeCenter Northwest’s medical team will assess for donation suitability only after all life-saving measures and treatments have been given and death has been declared.
  • Myth: My race or ethnicity doesn’t really matter for donation. Fact: We must work to overcome the myth that race or ethnicity doesn’t really matter for donation. The fact is that organ and tissue transplantation is not constrained by race or ethnicity; however, transplant success rates increase when organs are matched between members of similar race and ethnicity with similar genetic composition. Currently, ethnic minorities are in desperate need of more organ, eye, and tissue donors as they represent over 58% of the national organ transplant waiting list, but make up only 33% of actual donors.