By Dan Russo Witness Editor
CEDAR RAPIDS — Although he couldn’t fly, never wore a cape and didn’t have X-Ray vision, Noelle Perkins’ father is a super hero. Her second grade classmates at St. Jude Elementary School in Cedar Rapids recently found out why.
Scott Perkins, Noelle’s dad, died suddenly of a heart attack on January 31, 2014. Because the 41-year-old was an organ donor, his liver and two kidneys saved three men’s lives.
“How do you explain to young children that your dad is not going to make it?” said Scott’s wife Natalie Perkins, recalling that day at St. Luke’s Hospital over a year ago. “(Their grandfather Marty Wittrock) said, ‘Your dad is like Superman. He went to save lives.’”
Since that moment, the Superman symbol has become “the Perkins’ family crest,” according to Natalie. Like the famous comic book character that lost his parents and home planet, Natalie, Noelle, 8, and the family’s other two children Sawyer, 11, and Hollie, 5, have figured out how to find strength and good in the midst of a tragedy.
With April being National Donate Life Month, Noelle asked if she could get her classmates involved an effort to remember donors and raise awareness of organ and tissue donation. Every year, there is a display at St. Luke’s Hospital of butterflies, a symbol of organ and tissue donors. Donors’ names and their recipient’s names are placed on the display. Children are given the opportunity to color in paper butterflies to hang on the walls along with the display featuring their family members. The Perkins children colored butterflies last year and were about to do it again when Noelle got an idea.
“Noelle said, ‘It would be fun to bring some to my class to color,’” remembered Perkins.
After getting permission from teacher Cathy Soukup and other school officials, on April 17, Noelle, her mother and Frank Descourouez, a donations coordinator for the Iowa Donor Network (IDN), spoke to the second grade class.
“The kids had lots of questions. Right away the kids were like, ‘What’s an organ? What’s a kidney?,’” said Perkins.
Natalie and Noelle talked about Scott and what his donation meant to them and others. Descourouez was the representative of the IDN who visited the Perkins family to inform them that Scott had elected to be a donor.
“We knew what (organ and tissue donation) was, but not how it would make us feel less hopeless,” said Perkins. “We were like, ‘Wow, he’s going to live on in other people.’”
IDN is one of several private, non-profit organizations in the United States that link donors with recipients.
“We facilitate the organ and tissue recovery and transplant for organs in the state of Iowa,” explained Tony Hakes, public outreach manager for IDN. “We’ve got over 1 million registered organ donors in Iowa. There are between 550 to 600 people on waiting lists.”
The IDN, which is regulated by the federal government, works with families and transplant facilities to get organs and tissues to those in need. They handle about 250 organ donations a year and 1,000 tissue donations, all coming from people who have died. Organs are given to people based on how ill they are using a system overseen by doctors. Financial status, race, age and other factors not related to health are not considered, according to Hakes. Although the IDN specializes in donations after death, it recently became involved in also promoting awareness of the importance of living donors who volunteer to give organs to those in need, Hakes said.
Aside from helping with transplants, the IDN provides grief counseling and manages a program where donor’s families can make contact with and sometimes meet recipients of their loves one’s organs. In Scott Perkins’ case, his kidneys and liver went to three different men in their 50s, his corneas and other tissue went to other people. His wife decided to write letters to the three main recipients several months after Scott’s death.
“I was really curious about them and I wanted to feel connected somehow to Scott,” said Perkins. “One guy wrote me the same week. We were basically crossing paths (in the mail).”
All letters must go through IDN and the transplant teams first before being sent to either donor’s families or recipients. The two sides must exchange at least six letters over a year before they are allowed direct contact, according to IDN rules. So far, Perkins has learned how grateful the recipients and their families are and how well they are doing.
“It’s just amazing how fast these guys felt better,” she said.
Scott Perkins was a quiet, humble man who worked as a graphic designer. His wife and children recall his dry sense of humor and love for music. (He played guitar in a cover band and had a passion for classic rock.) After his death, Natalie and the kids moved from Belle Plaine to Cedar Rapids to be closer to family. At Natalie’s mom’s suggestion, the children enrolled in St. Jude School and LaSalle Catholic Middle School.
“After this all happened, I thought the kids were going to have problems, but they’re doing well,” said Perkins. “My mother thought the religious guidance (in a Catholic school) would help them get through this. I talk about Scott every day. We include him. We don’t dismiss him.”
Perkins is Catholic and her family has deepened their relationship with God and the church since Scott died.
“I feel like (our faith) has grown,” she said. “I feel like I reach out to God. I pray often for (Scott’s) recipients.”
Catholic teaching supports organ and tissue donation during life and after death as long as the donor consents.
“Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity,” states section 2296 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Scott Perkins’ gifts to his organ recipients is an affirmation of life that his wife hopes will inspire others. She now encourages people to sign up to be organ donors.
“You can easily put it on your driver’s license,” she said.
In the future, Perkins and her children would like to meet the men whose lives her husband saved face to face. There are currently 123,262 patients on waiting lists for organ transplants in the United States, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a non-profit organization that helps facilitate organ donation and transplantation. In January 2015, the most recent month for which figures are available, there were 2,577 transplants and 1,257 donors nationally, UNOS reports. For more information on being an organ donor, visit IDN’s website at: iowadonornetwork.org.