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Gift of Life Historical Timeline: Leadership and Success

Now and throughout its 50 years of service, Gift of Life Donor Program has continued to be internationally recognized for leadership, clinical excellence and innovation in donation and transplantation. Here are some of our historic achievements and milestones, as well as some of the groundbreaking advances in the field. While science continues to advance, it is essential human kindness and generosity that makes life-saving transplants possible.  

To honor Gift of Life’s 50 years of saving lives, help us register 50,000 more organ donors. Together, we can provide hope to the thousands waiting for a transplant. Go to registerme.org to sign up to become an organ donor.

In 1974, the Greater Delaware Valley Society of Transplant Surgeons established the Delaware Valley Transplant Program (DVTP), later to become known as Gift of Life Donor Program.

Since its founding, Gift of Life has been widely recognized as a leader in the fast-changing field of organ and tissue donation and transplantation. We’ve pioneered legislative policies, embraced clinical innovations and developed best practices that are the gold standard for coordinating life-saving and life-enhancing gifts.

Gift of Life Donor Program is one of the nation’s leading organ procurement organizations (OPO), coordinating more than 59,000 organs and more than two million tissue transplants since 1974 thanks to our generous community, dedicated hospital partners, tireless world-class staff and enthusiastic volunteer ambassadors.

Here are just some of our many milestones of achievement, along with notable advances in the history of transplantation and donation:

Two identical twin brothers are the living donor and recipient for the world’s first kidney transplant performed by Dr. Joseph Murray at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.

In Philadelphia, the first kidney transplants are done at Einstein, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Hospital by surgeons, including Clyde Barker, MD, and Aaron Bannett, MD, who go on to found Gift of Life Donor Program.

Cardiac surgeon Dr. Christiaan Barnard performs the first human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa.

Gift of Life Donor Program, originally known as Delaware Valley Transplant Program (DVTP), is formed by the Greater Delaware Valley Society of Transplant Surgeons, spearheaded by Clyde Barker, MD, and  Aaron Bannett, MD. The group hires Donald Denny, a social worker, as its first executive director and adopts the memorable phone number 1-800-KIDNEY-1, which would be used to identify the organization for the next 25 years.

Howard M. Nathan, future Gift of Life Donor Program president and CEO, is hired as a transplant coordinator.

DVTP expands outreach to hospitals. The involvement of hospital professionals and clinical staff proves key to increasing life-saving organ donations.

DVTP participates in the World Transplant Games, held in Athens, Greece, for the first time.

The region’s first liver and heart transplants are performed at Jefferson, Hershey and Temple hospitals.

Howard M. Nathan becomes DVTP president and CEO.

Congress passes the National Organ Transplant Act, which established the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to maintain a national registry for organ matching.

The first organ donor computer program is created. This groundbreaking electronic database and donor management system is utilized by more than half of the organ procurement organizations (OPO) in the U.S.

Medicare certifies DVTP as the official OPO for the eastern half of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware hospitals.

Forty area organ transplant recipients compete in the first U.S. Transplant Games. Team Philadelphia is the largest team at the competition and sets the stage for future success in the U.S. and world games.

DVTP expands life-enhancing donations by establishing tissue recovery services.

Rick Hasz, future Gift of Life Donor Program president and CEO, is hired as a transplant coordinator.

DVTP plays a major role in crafting landmark legislation called Pennsylvania Act 102, which was signed into law by Governor Robert P. Casey, who received a heart and liver transplant in 1993. The law established a driver’s license organ donor registry, allowing people to sign up to become an organ and tissue donor, and also required every patient death in a hospital to be referred for evaluation by professionals for organ, tissue and cornea donation. The law became a national model for donor registration and sparked a dramatic increase in registered donors.

The Gift of Life Donor Medal is a remembrance for those who helped improve the lives of others through organ, eye or tissue donation.

The Gift of Life Donor Medal is created for families. Today, dozens of organizations across the country use it to honor those who save and transform lives through organ, tissue and cornea donation.

First donation after circulatory death (DCD) occurs with donor Michael McVey by Dr. Avi Shaked thanks to the support of Michael’s mother, Susan McVey-Dillon.

Michael’s legacy went on to transform donation across the U.S. thanks to the passionate advocacy of his mother, Susan McVey Dillon, combined with Gift of Life’s leadership, in bringing DCD best practices to OPOs nationwide and helping to save thousands of lives.

The first annual Donor Dash draws 800 participants and helps raise awareness of the importance of organ and tissue donation thanks to the vision of Dash founder Claire Braverman, whose husband died waiting for a liver transplant.

DVTP changes its name to Gift of Life Donor Program.

Rick Hasz, future Gift of Life Donor Program president and CEO, becomes the vice president of clinical services.

Gift of Life teams up with the Philadelphia Phillies for “Gift of Life Donor Program Organ Donor Awareness Night”, a partnership that continues today.

Gift of Life Eye Bank is created, facilitating cornea donation to provide the precious gift of sight.

The first Threads of Love Memorial Quilt at the 2001 Donor Dash. Gift of Life’s collection of handmade memorial quilts has grown to almost 100 with each one-of-a-kind square lovingly crafted in honor of organ, tissue and cornea donor heroes.

A group of friends, led by heart recipient Don Freeman and his wife, Renee, creates Donors Are Heroes to raise public awareness about the importance of becoming an organ and tissue donor. DAH’s signature event, THE Party, goes on to celebrate 20 years in 2022 with more than $2.4 million raised to support education and outreach in multicultural communities. 

On Sept. 11, Gift of Life staff persevere to save lives, securing special permission from the FAA for a charter service to fly two organ recovery teams to their hospital destination despite the shutdown of air traffic.

Jessica Beth Schwartzexperienced 8½ additional years of life thanks to the gift of organ donation.

The first Jessie’s Day fundraiser is held for the Jessica Beth Schwartz Memorial Scholarship, which supports college-bound organ and tissue recipients in memory of the program’s heart recipient.

The Gift of Life Institute is created as a center of expertise grounded on the experience of Gift of Life Donor Program. The Institute’s comprehensive, interdisciplinary resources are designed to increase donation outcomes and include skills-based learning, continuing education, collaborative research, and consulting services for organ and tissue donation and transplantation professionals from around the world.

Camp Jeremy is held to offer children who have undergone a life-saving organ transplant and their siblings an opportunity to have fun and make friends with kids just like them.

The first Camp Jeremy is held to bring young transplant recipients and their siblings together for a week of summer fun and friendship inspired by heart recipient Jeremy Clemens, who was a camp counselor.

Gift of Life Donor Program moves to a permanent home at 401 N. 3rd Street in Philadelphia.

The first organ and tissue recoveries are performed in special surgical rooms at the new Gift of Life Donor Program headquarters.

Staff from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania attend Gift of Life's Donation Champion Learning Session.

Gift of Life launches Donation Champion Learning Sessions, which are fast-paced, interactive one-day programs to train healthcare providers who are interested in improving their hospital’s organ donation system.  

Gift of Life hosts the International Society for Organ Donation and Procurement (ISODP).

Team Philadelphia brings more than 500 members to the U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh, the largest team in the history of the Games. The team brings home more than 150 medals, showcasing the health and vitality of organ recipients who received a second chance at life.

The generosity of families in the region is unprecedented, making it possible for Gift of Life to set a national record for the most donors coordinated (439), resulting in 1,114 life-saving transplants.

The Nelson family establishes the David Nelson Jr. Memorial Fund to honor its namesake donor hero and provide educational scholarships for children of deceased organ and tissue donors and goes on to award more than $40,000 to help students cover the cost of high school or college.

Photo of Gift of Life Howie's House, 401 Callowhill St., Philadelphia, PA

Gift of Life Donor Program and the Transplant Foundation collaborate to open Gift of Life Family House, later renamed Gift of Life Howie’s House in honor of its founder, Howard. M. Nathan. This 32-room warm and welcoming home away from home provides temporary, affordable lodging and professional supportive services for families traveling to Philadelphia for a life-saving transplant for their loved one. The House is the first healthcare hospitality house in the U.S. founded by an organ procurement organization and serving multiple transplant centers.

Gift of Life coordinates the donation that allows Lindsey Ess to receive the first bilateral hand transplant at Penn Medicine. Lindsey goes on to compete in Crossfit competitions.

Gift of Life Donor Program achieves a national record with 447 organ donors and highest number of transplanted organs (1,228).

The National Transplant Pregnancy Registry (TPRI) joins Gift of Life Donor Program as the only research study in the world tracking the effects of pregnancy on transplant recipients and the effects of immunosuppressive medications on fertility and pregnancy outcomes. Many transplant recipients were warned not to attempt pregnancy in years past. TPRI has helped give organ recipients science-based information to achieve post-transplant parenthood.

Gift of Life Donor Program observes its 40th anniversary.

Gift of Life’s Donation Champion Learning Session program for healthcare partners educates its 5,000th participant.

The Donor Dash celebrates 20 years of raising awareness for organ and tissue donation, drawing thousands of supporters for 5K and 10K runs and a 3K walk in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Gift of Life coordinates the donation for the world’s first bilateral pediatric hand transplant at Penn Medicine, transforming the life of eight-year-old Zion Harvey. Zion goes on to represent the Gift of Life region on the Donate Life America float in the 2017 Tournament of Roses Parade.

Gift of Life Donor Program is the leading OPO in the U.S. for the 10th consecutive year, coordinating a record 565 organ donors and 1,546 organs for transplant. This is the most ever coordinated in one region in one year.

Gift of Life Donor Program helps to coordinate the first-ever face transplant for an African-American patient.

Gift of Life partners with Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to launch the annual “Mini-Dash” with decorations, activities, and prizes so that patients (including patients awaiting a transplant and transplant recipients), their families and staff can experience some of the fun of the Donor Dash in their hospital units.

Gift of Life coordinates the donation for a Penn Medicine clinical trial resulting in the birth of Baby Benjamin, the second baby in the U.S. to be born following transplantation of a uterus from a deceased donor. 

Alex Anaya, 29, died of a brain aneurysm and became Gift of Life’s first DCD (donation after circulatory death) heart donor thanks to new perfusion technology, which can potentially increase the number of hearts available for transplant by 30 percent.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, organ donation and transplants continue thanks to generous families, dedicated hospital partners and Gift of Life’s tireless, resilient team. Gift of Life helps support the community by offering grief and coping resources.

Gift of Life Howie’s celebrates ten years of caring for transplant families, providing comfort and hope along their journey.

Gift of Life coordinates the donation for the world’s first successful face and bilateral hand transplant performed at NYU Langone, transforming the life of Joe DiMeo.

Transplant Pregnancy Registry International (TPRI) marks its 30th anniversary having tracked more than 3,000 transplant recipients, more than 5,000 pregnancy outcomes, celebrated nearly 100 grandchildren, presented information at more than 500 academic forums, and written over 200 publications.

Gift of Life launches its annual “College Challenge,” engaging campus clubs, organizations, and PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) chapters across our region to help save lives by raising awareness and encouraging their school communities to register as organ donors.

photo of rick hasz, Jr., gift of life donor program

Rick Hasz becomes president and CEO of Gift of Life Donor Program, Gift of Life Howie’s House and Gift of Life Transplant Foundation after three decades of service, including 22 years as vice president of clinical services.

Following 43 years of service, Howard M. Nathan retires as Gift of Life Donor Program president and CEO and becomes executive director of Gift of Life Transplant Foundation.

Gift of Life Family House is renamed Gift of Life Howie’s House in honor of its founder, following Howard M. Nathan’s retirement from Gift of Life Donor Program.

A room is shown in a hospital building.

The Gift of Life Donor Care Center opens at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as the first intensive care unit in the Northeast U.S. exclusively for deceased organ donors — a state-of-the-art donor-focused surgical facility as recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

Gift of Life serves as an OPO leader in the first-of-its-kind initiative – the national “Kidney Collaborative” (End Stage Renal Disease Treatment Choices Learning Collaborative) of CMS and HRSA — working to increase the number of kidneys (the most-needed organ) available for transplant by sharing highly effective practices among acute care hospitals, OPOs and transplant centers.

Gift of Life celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Donor Dash, which has had more than a quarter of a million participants and has shared the inspiring power of donation with millions through community and media partnerships.

Gift of Life volunteer ambassador Tom Gano surpasses his goal of educating 300,000 high school students about the importance of organ and tissue donation in memory of his son, Curtis, a donor hero who saved four lives in 1987.

Gift of Life leads the U.S. for a milestone 15 consecutive years, coordinating the most organ donors (690) and organs for transplant (1,744), and is also the nation’s largest contributor to the U.S. one millionth transplant milestone.

Gift of Life Howie’s House provides close to $14 million in subsidized care over the course of its 12 years caring for transplant families.

Continuing its long history of innovation, Gift of Life partners with Penn Medicine on cutting-edge xenotransplantation research to help provide a “bridge” to transplant or time for healing for critically ill patients suffering from liver failure.

Gift of Life Donor Program launches a year-long commemoration honoring its 50 years of service, rallying the community to save more lives with a campaign to sign up 50,000 new organ and tissue donors.

To honor Gift of Life’s 50 years of saving lives, help us register 50,000 more organ donors. Together, we can provide hope to the thousands waiting for a transplant. Learn more and register at donors1.org.

A collage of photos is shown on the screen.

Gift of Life launches its Community Advisory Board, bringing regional leaders, donor families and transplant recipients together to decrease barriers to organ donation in Philadelphia, especially in communities with a high number of patients on the transplant waitlist and historically low donation and donor designation rates.

Gift of Life Institute celebrates its 20th anniversary as an international leader in training for organ and tissue donation professionals. The Institute has provided more than 600 workshops to all U.S. OPOs and multiple tissue banks. More than 13,000 professionals from across the U.S. and 33 countries around the world have benefited from its programs.