The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Chip Minemyer

February 12, 2012

Chip Minemyer | ‘A perfect match’: JAHA chief gets kidney transplant

— In Florida, a young man tragically is struck by a car and dies.

And in Pennsylvania, another man gets a new lease on life – thanks to the generosity of organ donation.

Richard Burkert, president of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, received a kidney transplant on Feb. 1 in Pittsburgh – his second such procedure.

At home this past week in Johnstown, Burkert has been counting his blessings and marveling at the unlikely scenario that is lifting him from kidney dialysis treatments to a new start.

“It’s really starting to hit me just how incredibly lucky I am in this,” Burkert said. “I’m so grateful. It’s just an amazing thing.”

For years, Burkert has suffered from polycystic kidney disease – an inherited chronic ailment.

He had a transplant in December 1999 and was featured both on WJAC-TV and in The Tribune-Democrat as a local Christmas miracle.

But in 2010, his kidney problems returned, and Burkert was back on a transplant list in November of that year.

He went back on dialysis three times a week last May.

“Last spring, I got really sick,” he said. “And I was basically settling in for a long stay on dialysis.

“I was still working. Mentally, I was OK. But physically, I was really dragging.”

Shelley Johansson, JAHA’s director of communications and marketing, said those closest to Burkert knew he was suffering – even as he continued to appear at events such as the first lighting of the Stone Bridge and the groundbreaking for work at Peoples Natural Gas Park in downtown Johnstown.

“It says a lot about Richard that he has never once in my presence complained,” Johansson said.

A phone call on Jan. 31 changed everything.

That day, Burkert traveled to Pittsburgh, where he had surgery the next morning at Allegheny General Hospital.

Despite enduring a four-hour procedure, he came home on the following Sunday.

Burkert will return to Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day for a follow-up appointment.

“The biggest thing for me,” Burkert said, “is the donor himself and his family. They’ve changed probably a half-dozen lives, at least.”

What Burkert was told about the man who likely saved his life is that he was 28 years old and in good health, and that the two were a nearly perfect match in terms of the list of proteins doctors check when distributing organs.

And that the man had listed himself as an organ donor.

“His organs have helped people all over the country,” Johansson said. “This is such a miraculous thing.”

The nonprofit organization Donate Life America is in the midst of a campaign to sign up 20 million potential organ donors in 2012.

In touting its mission, the group cites national statistics such as these:

* Nearly 113,000 people are awaiting transplants.

* More than 21,000 organ transplants were performed in 2011.

* Those gifts of life came from more than 10,500 different individuals.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 18 people die each day in this country awaiting transplants that never come.

“As long as the need for donated organs surpasses the supply, and patients die awaiting a lifesaving transplant, more must be done,” Donate Life America said.

Here’s the best news: The federal government says more than 100 million people in the United States are signed up to be organ donors.

Burkert would applaud their unselfishness.

“Obviously, I’m a big supporter of organ donation,” he said.

Burkert added: “The role of fate in all of this ... Here’s a guy who’s a perfect match for me. And he had to die for me to find that out. He was a young man, and he died too soon. And he could have been buried with all of his organs.

“Except that he wasn’t.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

On the web

Learn more about organ donation at:

* The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website (

* The website of the nonprofit group Donate Life America (


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