If Joseph Gutierrez could give thanks this holiday season for the best gift he ever got, this is what he would say:
“Thanks for having a son or daughter who was selfless in becoming a donor, because it helped save my life and my arm.”
And if Carol Hutchinson-Stepp could accept such thanks, she would say:
“It feels really wonderful to know that there’s still a part of our son here that’s alive. Not being able to see those eyes is a tragedy, but those eyes allowed two other people to see. … Hopefully whoever has his eyes are seeing birds for the first time, or their children for the time, through his eyes.”
Roxborough resident Gutierrez and Littleton resident Hutchinson-Stepp don’t know each other, and neither of them know who their words should go to. But they both know that organ donation benefits both the recipient and the families of the deceased.
Hutchinson-Stepp’s 25-year-old stepson, C. Jay, died in February 2012 of congestive heart failure. It was completely unexpected, as the fun-loving young man was rarely sick.
“We saw him in January for the Super Bowl,” she remembers. “We had no idea he was that sick.
“He died Feb. 29, so the anniversary of his death is only every four years. Even in death, he did it his own way. The tears still come, and they probably always will. He lived his own life and had his own path, and we’re proud of him for that.”
She says when the family realized he had made the “very adult, grown-up decision” to be an organ donor, they knew they had to honor that choice. Though the disease had ravaged much of his body, his corneas were able to give the gift of sight to two people.
In November 2011, Gutierrez began having trouble with his left arm. It was swollen and painful, and he thought he had a torn rotator cuff. An MRI revealed something much worse — a giant-cell tumor. Although benign, such tumors can metastasize into the lungs.
His had begun to eat away at the bone in his upper arm, and doctors found it necessary to replace it with a donor humerus. The tumor has come back twice, necessitating two more surgeries, but his new bone has weathered the storm.
“You kind of feel sorry for yourself when you’re in a situation like mine, but then you hear the donor families’ stories and you think, `You know what? You don’t have it so bad.’ At least they were able to save my arm,” said Gutierrez, who is retired from his long-time career as an Englewood postal carrier.
He’s gotten the opportunity to meet many donors’ families through volunteering with Donor Alliance, the Limb Preservation Foundation and AlloSource, a large tissue-processing company in Centennial. That involvement garnered him a spot on the “Gift of Life” float two years running in both Denver’s Parade of Lights and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
“It’s been a real rewarding experience,” he said. “Even though I’ve had three operations on my arm, I’ve gotten to meet some really fantastic people.”
Waving to the crowds with his left arm is a challenge, however, because he can only lift it about chest high.
“I do as much as I can within my limitations,” said Gutierrez, 65, an avid outdoorsman. “It’s like I have one and a half arms.”
According to Donor Alliance, there are more than 2,200 people in Colorado waiting for an organ transplant, though 67 percent of Coloradans who have registered to be donors. To join them, visit DonateLifeColorado.org or call 303-329-4747. For more information, visit www.DonorAlliance.org.