Even in the most painful of moments, the choice seemed clear.
The Johnson family was still in shock. With no warning, their patriarch, Jeff Johnson, had suffered massive cardiac arrest and died. His wife, Dana, and children Dustin Johnson, Daren Johnson and Shanna Smith, consoled one another as best they could.
When they were asked if they had considered organ donation, it was a subject they had never thought to discuss before. But quickly, all agreed that it was what Jeff would have wanted.
“We never talked about it. But I knew him. I knew he would be in favor of it,” said Dana Johnson, a Greenwood resident.
Since that moment, the Johnson family has been increasingly active with raising awareness of organ donation and the need. They have volunteered at events around central Indiana, sharing their story and stressing the importance of organ donation. Last May, they organized a golf outing in Jeff Johnson’s honor, raising money for the Indiana Donor Network.
More than 1,100 Indiana residents are currently on the organ donation waiting list, and more are added every day. For the Johnson family, the tragedy of Jeff’s death was countered by lives he helped save.
“It became an important point to us. The (Indiana) Donor Network has been great reaching out to us and to mom, providing constant contact and showing care and love to us. They deal with this all of the time, but they really gave a personal touch, which meant a lot,” Daren Johnson said.
Advocates for organ donation point to families such as the Johnsons, who have made a difficult decision that ended up changing the lives of others.
“A lot of times we don’t realize that we have someone in our circle who has been impacted by donation. A lot of times, people have a donor in their family, and sometimes they don’t get a chance to talk about it. It is kind of a silver lining and tragic story for those families.” said Corinne Osinski‑Carey, a community outreach coordinator for the Indiana Donor Network. “When people hear that, it helps them realize how important it is to consider being a donor, because it can impact someone you care about.”
The need for organ donors has never been greater. More than 105,000 people are on the organ donation waiting list across the United States. Another person is added to the nation’s organ transplant waiting list every nine minutes.
Yet each day, 17 people die waiting for a transplant. In 2020, 6,151 transplant candidates died while on the transplant waiting list.
“There simply aren’t enough donors right now,” Osinski‑Carey said. “It’s important to build up the national registry, the state registry, but also letting people know that need is out there and inform them about living donation.”
April is National Donate Life Month, an opportunity for advocates across the country to raise awareness about organ and tissue donation, encourage Americans to register as donors, and honor those who have saved lives through the gift of life.
More than 4.2 million Indiana residents are registered as organ and tissue donors. While that number is significant, increasing that base is imperative, Osinski‑Carey said.
“We’re out in the community in several different ways. Our goal is to connect with people where they’re comfortable. It is an uncomfortable conversation to talk about organ donation after dying. So we like to have conversations with people one-on-one at community events, sharing stories from advocates who have been personally impacted by donation,” she said.
The Johnson family has been one that has shared their story.
Jeff Johnson was only 62 when he suffered cardiac arrest and died on Feb. 25, 2020. The Greenwood resident had worked in construction for more than 35 years, retiring in January of 2020 from F.A. Wilhelm to form his own company, J Squared Construction Management Solutions.
His first day in that role was Feb. 17 — one day before suffering the cardiac event that required emergency open heart surgery. Even after the surgery, he died at around 3 a.m. one week later.
Later that morning, representatives from Indiana Donor Network reached out to Dana Johnson about donation.
Jeff Johnson had not signed up to be an organ or tissue donor before he died; it wasn’t marked on his driver’s license, and it wasn’t anything they had discussed in the past, Dana Johnson said.
Still, she suspected her husband would be in favor of it.
“But when they called, I couldn’t talk to them. I took the phone and handed it to poor Shanna,” she said.
Smith works as a nurse, and sees the need for organ donors every day. She told the Indiana Donor Network that the family was in favor of organ and tissue donation, starting the process.
“It’s what he would have wanted,” Dustin Johnson said.
Jeff Johnson was able to donate his cornea, as well as bone, skin and other tissues. The family has received confirmation that his cornea was successfully implanted, allowing someone else to see.
Hearing that has made clear just how powerful organ donation is, Daren Johnson said.
“There’s an education to it. Them educating us on the kind of impact it was going to have, it’s a no-brainer for people. But you don’t know until it happens,” he said.
Jeff Johnson loved nothing more than being with friends and playing golf at Dye’s Walk Country Club in Greenwood. Because of that, family decided to plan a golf outing to help raise money for Donate Life Indiana.
“He lived for playing golf. He’d watch it on TV, he’d always play, so we knew he’d want to do a golf outing. We were thinking about the cause to give to, and Shanna and mom both said how the donor network had been great to work with, very supportive, and said we’d do this for them and see where it goes,” Daren Johnson said.
On the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, dozens of Jeff Johnson’s friends, family and co-workers gathered at Dye’s Walk.
“Dad loved golf, he loved family, he loved going and golfing with friends and having a few beers,” Dustin Johnson said. “To see all of his work people in his name, we knew he would have gotten a kick out of it.”
Money generated by the outing supported the Donor Hero Camp, a weeklong camp held for children of organ donors.
“We were happy to see that’s where it was going to go, that it would go to something that meant something,” Dana Johnson said.
The family has remained active with the Indiana Donor Network and its advocacy.
Smith worked with the organization’s booth at the Brickyard 400 in 2021, and she and Daren Johnson have signed up to volunteer at the Indianapolis 500 this year. Dana Johnson has given her time at the Indiana Donor Network headquarters, doing work such as folding blankets donated to the organization or stuffing envelopes.
The family has again planned the Jeff Johnson Memorial Golf Outing, scheduled for May 26 at Dye’s Walk.
“Hopefully, for many years to come, we can make an impact to the Donor Network for many years. We’ll see where it takes us,” Daren Johnson said.
If you go
Jeff Johnson Memorial Golf Outing
What: A golf scramble event in honor of Johnson, a Greenwood resident, to raise money for the Indiana Donor Network.
When: May 26; 11 a.m. registration, lunch, driving range, noon shotgun start
Where: Dye’s Walk Country Club, 2080 S. SR 135, Greenwood
Registration: $150 single, $500 foursome
Information: Contact Dustin Johnson, 317-748-8188, Daren Johnson 317-508-8188, Shanna Smith, 317-508-0536, or Dana Johnson, 317-509-7164.
At a glance
What kinds of organ donation are there?
Living donation: Kidney and liver patients who are able to receive a living donor transplant can receive an organ much sooner, often in less than a year.
Deceased donation: Deceased organ, tissue and eye donation is the process of giving an organ (or part of an organ), tissue or eye at the time of the donor’s death, for the purpose of transplantation to another person. Deceased donors can provide kidneys, liver, heart and valves, lungs, pancreas, intestines, bones, veins, corneas, islet cells and tendons.
Vascularized Composite Allografts: These procedures involve the transplantation of multiple structures that may include skin, bone, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue. The most commonly known type of these are for hand and face transplants.
Who can be an organ donor?
Anyone. There are no age or race restrictions for donation, and regardless of medical history, you can sign up to be a donor.
To register to be an organ donor, go to donatelifeindiana.org/show-your-support/sign-up/ and fill out the required form. People also can register to be a donor at any Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles location.
To inquire about living donation, go to iuhealth.org/find-medical-services/living-kidney-donation or iuhealth.org/find-medical-services/living-organ-donation.
Source: Donate Life Indiana