Although he first appeared quite healthy to his parents when he was born, D.J.’s health started to go awry when he was only a few months old and his skin turned yellow. His parents were soon told that their son was born with a condition called biliary atresia, a rare disorder that left him without bile ducts connected to his liver to properly digest the fats in any foods he ate.
Doctors first created a man-made bile duct to try to reverse his condition. When that procedure failed, D.J., just 7 months old, was placed on the liver transplant list. He was lucky. On November 30, 1990, he received a donated liver at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
“As I got older, I learned that there were four other families at the time whose children needed a liver transplant like me, but three of those children passed away before they could get a transplant,” he says softly. “As I got old enough to understand it all, I realized that life is a blessing to me, thanks to a family who selflessly made the decision to donate organs.”
As D.J. grew up, his parents pushed for permission from school officials so that D.J. could participate in outdoor activities and school sports. “My parents were champions,” he says. “My dad told them, ‘We didn’t go through all this to not let him live like other kids. Let him play soccer and baseball.’ So I did and I loved it.”
For 18 years, D.J. also thought about his donor. Just prior to entering college, he was home getting the mail when his hand froze on a letter addressed to him. “My dad asked me what was wrong and I looked up and said it was a letter from my donor family. They wanted to meet.”
In what D.J. called one of the longest, yet most exciting road trips ever, his family traveled to Kansas City to meet the donor family face to face. “My donor was only 8 months old when she passed away,” he said. “How can you truly ever say thank you to someone who, in their own grief, gives you a lifesaving, life-changing gift? I still remember the text message when we got the hotel. ‘We’re ready when you are.’ I will never forget that day.”
At Quincy University, D.J., at first, didn’t tell his prospective soccer coach about his transplant and just walked on for tryouts. He became a goalkeeper and was a member when the team rose to become No. 5 in the nation. Says D.J., “My coach said later that he took a risk once he found out I had a transplant, but that he was glad he did!”
D.J. also trained with the F.C. Adrenaline soccer team and helped to coach high school soccer players at Lutheran South High School. Currently he is in the process of obtaining his certification to be a soccer trainer and full-time coach. “My passion is to train junior high and high school students to play soccer in college,” he says.
Ever thankful for his liver transplant, D.J. still stops by the SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Transplant Team office to say hello. He regularly lectures about the benefits of organ donation and is now a Glennon Ambassador, bringing his message to even more audiences.
“I think about my transplant constantly,” D.J. says. “I believe that the very least I can do to say thank you to my donor family is to continually talk about the need for organ donation and to show people what a difference it can make in people like me. I am passionate about what I do because life is precious. I was given a second chance at life through organ donation and I’m going to do all I can to give back to honor the memory of my donor and her family.”