“It’s miraculous to watch.”

Photo of Ruth Keith and retired transplant surgeon Dr. Beverly Ketel with text: "It's miraculous to watch."

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“It’s miraculous to watch.”

Ruth Keith began working as an organ donation coordinator in the 1980s. She remembers relying on fax machines and landline phones for information on the potential transplant recipients who were a match for the cases she coordinated.

“We did everything,” said Ruth, senior donation liaison at Gift of Hope. “The waiting lists (of potential recipients) were coming through the fax machine, and we’d have two phones up to our ears. We would stay until the entire (donation) process was complete.”

While Ruth coordinated donation at a local hospital working with the donor and their family, Dr. Beverly Ketel was among the transplant surgeons at the other end of the process—attending to the patients who ultimately would receive the donated gifts of life.

Pediatric transplant cases are the ones that Dr. Ketel remembers most fondly.

“It’s a miracle… a patient’s health is so closely restored to normal; it’s so gratifying,” Dr. Ketel said of transplantation. “Especially the pediatric cases, they are the bright lights. When babies and toddlers have kidney failure, they don’t eat or grow. When they receive a transplant, their life reverses and they grow faster to catch up. It’s miraculous to watch.”

The memories of their work together in organ donation and transplantation that Ruth and Dr. Ketel recall provide a history of the field of and the evolution of services to donor families as donation has increased over the years.

Dr. Ketel has witnessed critical improvements to transplant surgical procedures, extended preservation of organs outside the body and advances in anti-rejection drug therapies. “The recipient’s body’s attempt to reject the organ is controlled with new drugs,” she said. “Our success rate is now 90 percent at one year [after transplant].”

Both talk about the outcomes of organ and tissue transplants and how recipients are now living healthy lives. Ruth is gratified by the impact that just one donor can have, perhaps saving up to eight lives. Dr. Ketel recalls seeing teens who received kidneys as children. “You’d never know they had a transplant.”

Ruth remembers receiving a letter from a man who’d benefited from an intestine transplant. “He wrote that his daughter is going to be married and (he can) walk her down the aisle. It brought tears to my eyes.”

While Dr. Ketel has retired, she remains involved in transplantation as chair of the Illinois Transplant Fund—a non-profit organization established by Gift of Hope to help patients without health insurance gain access to the life-saving organ transplants they need. Ruth continues to work with potential donors and their families at hospitals in central Illinois, calling on her empathy and genuine concern to build trusting relationships as families share stories about their loved ones.

“My comfort zone is a quiet room with a grieving family,” she said. “It’s important how genuine you are, giving empathy, support and guidance.”

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