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Wall Street Journal Feature: “Howard Nathan Spent Decades On Call for Organ Donation”

The CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program is stepping down after a long career connecting organ donors with patients in need.

When Howard Nathan first began working as an organ-transplant coordinator in Philadelphia in 1978, the process of shepherding kidneys from the recently departed to the sick but hopeful still seemed ghoulish to many. He recalls a party where he was asked what he did for a living: “I told them I have to talk to families whose loved ones just passed away and get them to donate the organs. They quickly said, ‘OK, nice talking to you.’”

photograph of howard m. nathan gift of life donor program
Howard M. Nathan

Today, a procedure that once evoked Frankenstein has become familiar. Over 40,000 organ transplants took place in 2021, a record, and nearly 170 million Americans have chosen to register as potential organ donors, according to federal figures. The change is due in part to the work of Mr. Nathan, who is stepping down this month after 38 years as president and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program, the largest and most successful organ donor and transplant network in the country.

When Mr. Nathan, 68, first joined the nonprofit that would become Gift of Life, he was one of three employees. Working around the clock, he traveled to hospitals in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey for hard conversations with grieving families and then made calls to surgeons in the hope of matching a donated organ with a waiting patient. “We would be driving on the Turnpike with a kidney in the car at three in the morning,” Mr. Nathan recalls on a video call from Gift of Life headquarters in central Philadelphia. “In the early days we had to make it up as we went along.”

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