(Above) Bob Skaggs is reunited with the surgeon who performed his kidney transplant, Dr. Bijan Eghtesad, in Cleveland in 2016.
The only member in the over-75 age group, Bob Skaggs stepped up onto the blocks to begin his swim. There were no other swimmers lining up with him, but he wasn’t alone.
On his official race badge, he carried with him the photo and obituary of the organ donor who had saved his life with a kidney transplant.
Skaggs was swimming in the 2014 Donate Life Transplant Games in Houston – an event that brings together recipients of live-saving transplants every two years to race, swim, compete and celebrate with each other. All the while, they are honoring the memories of the organ donors who gave them a chance at life.
His wife, Barbara Skaggs, recalls her pride as she watched her husband swim from the stands.
“Robert had always been athletic,” she says. “But because of the transplant, he was bound and determined to make the most of that kidney and treat it right, so I think competing in the games was a big part of that.”
For 24 years after his transplant, Skaggs did just that. He represented his home state of New Mexico and the U.S. in national and international transplant games, winning 39 gold medals, 22 silver and nine bronze. He made a habit of giving his medals to the nurses, doctors and other medical professionals who assisted with his ongoing care.
“He did it just because these people impacted his post-transplant life so much,” says Barbara.
But at those 2014 Transplant Games in Houston, it was Skaggs himself who would impact the lives of two medical professionals, bringing them together in one joyful coincidence.
Fliehman (center) with Bob and Barbara Skaggs in Houston.
Tricia Fliehman had never really given much thought to becoming an organ donor. It had crossed her mind briefly when she got her driver’s license at age 16, but it wasn’t until years later that a professional opportunity led her to explore the transplant world.
“Walgreens had an opportunity to work with the Cleveland Clinic on organ transplant, and I had never been trained on it before,” recalls Fliehman, Walgreens regional account executive for Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “But it seemed like an incredible opportunity.”
After she completed her training, she soon realized this would be her new passion for the next seven years and counting. Fliehman connects hospitals and transplant centers in her region with Walgreens specialty pharmacies, making sure that their transplant patients are able to receive the individualized care and advice they need from specifically trained pharmacists.
In the years since her introduction to the transplant specialty, Fliehman has dedicated her personal and professional life to organ donation patient care and advocacy. In addition to the work she does for Walgreens, she also began volunteering at the Transplant Games every two years.
At the 2014 Transplant Games in Houston, she found herself acting as the timekeeper for Skaggs’ race. They chatted a bit as he prepared to jump from the blocks; he mentioned to her that his transplant surgery was done in New Mexico.
Right before Skaggs jumped into the pool, something sparked in Fliehman’s mind.
“Did Dr. Eghtesad do your surgery?” Fliehman called after him, but it was too late. Skaggs was already in the water.
When he re-emerged from the pool at the end of his race, the first words out of his mouth were for her.
“He did! How did you know?”
A lifelong connection
Six years ago, when Fliehman was just beginning the transplant chapter of her career for Walgreens, her enthusiasm made a lasting impression on an established surgeon with the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Bijan Eghtesad.
“Tricia impressed a lot of people around here because her interest was not just professional, but she has a genuine love for helping transplant patients,” Dr. Eghtesad explains. “She would be here at 6:30 in the morning, driving all the way from Columbus just to make sure that a patient got the medications he or she needed before they got discharged.”
Dr. Eghtesad has been with the Cleveland Clinic since 2005, but before that he spent six years at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, helping to advance the existing kidney program, developing a new liver program and performing transplants for patients in the area.
One of those patients was Skaggs – a patient Dr. Eghtesad would not soon forget.
“I kept pretty well in touch with Bob for the first few years after his transplant surgery,” Dr. Eghtesad recalls. “One day, he came to me asking if I would sign the paperwork so he could compete in the Transplant Games. I did, and that year he came back with five medals, and he kept coming back with more each year I’d see him.”
Skaggs was a role model for Dr. Eghtesad’s other transplant patients, showing them not only how to take care of their new organs, but how to get the most out of their new chance at life.
The power of a single donor
According to Donate Life America, there are currently more than 112,000 patients waiting for a live-saving transplant – 84 percent of whom need a kidney to continue living.
A single donor can impact a surprising number of lives. Tissue donation, such as skin, bone and ligaments, can go on to help up to 75 people. Cornea donations from a single person can help restore the sight of two. And just one single organ donor can save up to eight lives.
But while 90 percent of Americans support the idea of organ donation or becoming a donor, only around 60 percent are currently registered.
“I think this statistic shows us that some people just don't want to think about it,” says Karen Headley, vice president for partnerships and philanthropy for Donate Life America. “They conceptually like the idea of organ donation, but they don't actually take the step to become a donor, because who wants to think about death?”
To help raise awareness and make the process as easy as possible, Walgreens partnered with Donate Life America on a campaign in June 2018 to help customers register through a prompt on the Walgreens app.
Rick Serlin, manager of enterprise and collaborative marketing for Walgreens, worked to launch the campaign. Since then, the “Become an Organ Donor” message has appeared on the app at multiple times throughout the year, directing users to a registration page where they can sign up to be a donor.
Since the initiative launched, nearly 12,000 people have signed up to be organ donors through the registration link, potentially saving thousands of the lives waiting for organ transplants and impacting many thousands more in need of tissue or cornea transplants.
Tricia Fliehman (left), with Bob Skaggs (center) and Dr. Bijan Eghtesad, in 2016.
Due to the fragile nature of an organ and the ideal conditions needed for a transplant, it’s essential to register as many donors as possible across the nation, in hopes that one of them will meet the conditions necessary for organ donation, Headley explains.
Potential donors can instantly register their decision to be an organ, eye and tissue donor on the National Donate Life Registry through the Donate Life America website via this link.
All it takes is one donor to save a life. 24 years ago, one of those lives was Skaggs.
‘A very pleasant moment’
On a muggy, mid-summer day in Ohio, Fliehman ducked into the air-conditioned convention center where transplant recipients, donor families and supporters gathered for the beginning of the 2016 Transplant Games.
“I had told Bob at the 2014 Games that if he could make it to Cleveland, I would make sure his doctor would be there to cheer him on,” Fliehman says. “And he was so excited, he texted me periodically for the next two years asking if I was really going to do it.”
And she really did. Two decades after Dr. Eghtesad performed a life-saving kidney transplant surgery on Skaggs, and one month before his 80th birthday, the two men were reunited.
“After more than 20 years, I saw my friend,” Dr. Eghtesad recalls. “He was a little older than I remembered, but still very active. We hugged. I looked at his face, he looked at mine, and we just sat there for a moment. It was a very pleasant moment, and he was such a wonderful man.”
Bob Skaggs passed away in February – a loss that will be felt by his family in New Mexico and the transplant community throughout the world. He was a veteran of the U.S. Army, a PhD in materials science, an accomplished engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and a founding member of New Mexico State University’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Academy, and an avid skier and swimmer.
“In his second chapter of life, he was an advocate for anything having to do with organ donation,” says Barbara. “It doesn’t cost you anything, and you are saving or improving at least one life, if not many more. He was so grateful to get that second chance.”
Memorial donations in Skaggs’ name can be made to Donate Life America.