By STEVEN NALLEY
Beverly Hammett estimates 85 percent of Mississippians are at risk for needing organ transplants.
It seems like an impossible figure, at first, until Hammett says she is taking into account the large number of Mississippians with diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other conditions that can, under certain circumstances, cause organs to fail. In particular, she knows from experience how suddenly the transition from diabetes to organ failure can happen, because five years ago, an MRSA infection combined with her diabetes blinded her permanently, damaged her small intestines and began to shut down her kidneys.
“In a matter of six months, I was almost dead,” Hammett said. “I look at it this way: I am a blessed, blessed person. I have gone through darkness and gone to the other side, and I am thankful.”
This year, Hammett received the kidney transplant she needed, and she is now organizing the first meeting of Starkville’s first organ transplant support group Sept. 10 at 11 a.m. at McAlister’s Deli.
Hammett said she met a number of transplant patients when she had her transplant at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. They formed bonds which inspired her to form a support group in her home town.
“In a hospital, because all of you have the same kind of problem, you all become a family,” Hammett said. “You all have gone through a crisis, and you’ve all decided you are fighters.”
Hammett said there are 122,000 Mississippians placed on organ transplant waiting lists each year, but only 22,000 of them will receive the organs they need. She said she met one patient at UAB who had just received long-awaited organs.
“He got a kidney and he got a pancreas, but because of his particular blood and tissue type, he had to wait 22 years,” Hammett said. “Without it, he would have died.”
The support group will not only provide emotional support, but also guest speakers from local hospitals, insurance agencies and other community resources to talk donors, families of donors, and candidates for donations through the process, Hammett said.
“We’re going to know what they’re experiencing. We’re going to know their feelings, their apprehensions and their financial burdens, because organ transplants are not cheap,” Hammett said. “It does not cost the donor family anything, but it costs the recipient $350,000 and up. You have to have good insurance and good supplemental insurance.”
Hammett said the group will also educate the public and physicians in the area about organ donations, making them aware of patients they may be able to help. Education literature and other assistance will be provided by the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency.
One of the MORA members Hammett is working with is Ron Watterman, a family care specialist.
One helpful aspect of the new support group, he said, is that MORA will now be able to hold donor recognition ceremonies in Starkville. Before, he said, Starkville donors had to travel to ceremonies at previously established support groups in Meridian and Tupelo.
“We have 70-80 donors or donor families in the Starkville area,” Watterman said. “It’s a little bit of a long way for people to come from Starkville to Tupelo or Meridian on a Sunday afternoon.”
Watterman said MORA will also contact patients and families which have previously participated in the organ donation process. The only thing MORA won’t be able to do, he said, is contribute money.
“We’ll do whatever we can to help her get the group organized,” Watterman said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get connected to this entire process. It opens several opportunities for people to get educated on organ donations.”
Hammett said the schedule for future meetings will be determined at the first, but they are likely to be monthly. She said this is because she is involved with several other causes, including the City of Starkville’s Commission on Disability and the Starkville-Golden Triangle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Mississippi.
In April, she also began collecting and delivering stuffed animals locals donated to young tornado victims being treated at UAB.
Hammett delivers the stuffed animals each time she returns to UAB for a check-up, and she said she delivered 200 stuffed animals in July, with more to come this October.