Gift of sight - Donation benefits Algerian resident
By Pam Reinig
Nearly 5,000 miles from Elkader in the North African sovereign state of Algeria lives someone with a unique connection to Northeast Iowa. All that is known about the person is this: He or she has received a priceless gift from a Clayton County husband and father. It was a gift the man had hoped to delay giving for several years but was nonetheless prepared to offer when the time came.
Sadly, the time came too soon.
On June 5, 2016, just a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Jeff Werger died of injuries sustained in a freak accident. Jeff was an organ donor. Through an unusual set of circumstances, his cornea went to an Algerian citizen with extreme vision problems. The recipient may not know that Mascara, Algeria, is Elkader’s sister city, but the connection is not lost on Jeff’s young widow, Jessica, who actually gets a small measure of peace from it.
“It’s like he’s far away and yet so near,” she said.
Jeff was a native Northeast Iowan. He and Jessica made their home in Garnavillo with their daughter, Jayda, who will soon turn 5. Jessica and Jayda still live there surrounded by memories of their late husband and dad. Among the photos, paperwork and other memorabilia is a letter from the Iowa Lions Eye Bank, which Jessica received a few weeks after Jeff died.
“The letter thanked me for Jeff’s gift of vision,” Jessica said. “It also included instructions for finding out where his eyes had gone. Well, that was the last thing I was thinking about the month after he passed so I just put the letter aside.”
A few months later Jessica received a call at the Elkader law office where she’s a legal secretary. She was asked if she’d like to be informed about successful transplants using Jeff’s organs. Though still adjusting to her new reality as a widow and single parent, she felt ready to receive the sort of information being offered to her.
“I decided that if someone was having a better life because of Jeff, I wanted to know,” Jessica said. “To me, it’s a way of keeping him alive.”
When Jessica told the caller about the letter she’d earlier received from the Lions group, the woman offered to supply contact information in case Jessica couldn’t find the information.
“I wrote the information she gave me on a piece of paper at work and then set that aside,” Jessica continued. “One day near the beginning of March, I came across it and decided that I’d just do it. I’d make the call and find out what happened with Jeff’s eyes.”
Jessica learned that only one of Jeff’s eyes was used. The other, which had been damaged years earlier and operated on several times, was not viable for a transplant. The remaining eye fell just under the strict standards used for U.S. corneal transplants so its availability was placed in an international database. Medical personnel in Algeria were the first to request it.
“So I know Jeff’s eye went to Algeria and I know the transplant was successful,” Jessica continued, “ but that’s the limit of what I know. I’ve written a letter that will eventually get to the recipient (of Jeff’s cornea), and then he or she will have to decide if we communicate further.”
In addition to Jeff’s eye, other vital organs, bones, arteries, veins and tissue (skin) were harvested and used.
Since Jeff’s death, Jessica and several family members and friends have become organ donors. Jessica and Jayda have participated in awareness and fund-raising events for organ donation. And whenever she has a chance, Jessica urges others to make the same selfless pledge Jeff made.
“It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take long,” she said, “but it can make such a difference.”
More than 1.6 million Iowans have registered as donors. For more information, visit iowadonornetwork.org. Donor registration information is also available wherever Iowa drivers’ licenses are issued.