HAWTHORNE, NJ – Basil Vorolieff, 83, is a retired marketer and advertiser living in Hawthorne who was given a second chance thanks to a life-saving liver transplant ten years ago. His perspective on life changed, and he has dedicated much of his time since then to helping others who have had transplant operations. He has also competed in the Transplant Games, winning medals. One of those victories helped ultimately connect him with the family of the woman whose liver donation saved him from cancer.
In the 1980s, Basil told TAPinto Hawthorne, he was diagnosed with what would become known as Hepatitis-C. “There was no treatment for that at the time,” he said, “and I think it was in the 90s that they isolated Hep-C and developed a treatment that was very unpleasant with a very low success rate. I did go through with the treatment for nine months, and it was the last three months that were pretty horrible.”
The doctors told him he had a chance of getting cancer afterwards. So, each year he would routinely get checked. In 2007, the bad news came: a scan revealed a mass on his liver. “I was sent to NY Presbyterian Hospital for their liver transplant center. I went through the listing process. It took 15 different tests or consultations, to get on the waiting list.”
He described the process for where one falls on the waiting list. “Someone waiting for a liver transplant is rated by how high on the list he is by a combination of three different blood tests, and that ends up being the MELD score, which is Model for End-Stage Liver Disease.”
Then Basil waited.
Two years later, a woman’s life came to a tragic end, but she was able to save the life of a man she had never known since she was a registered donor. On October 26, 2009, Basil underwent a successful liver transplant operation. “It changed my life in many ways. When you go through such a major life-threatening surgery and you go through it well, all the sudden the little things that bothered you don’t bother you anymore. You get a totally different outlook. It makes you view life in a much clearer way and it made me very thankful. I also realize that somebody died in order for that to happen.”
The organ donors are anonymous, but Basil said through the social services at the hospital, patients were able to contact the donor families, revealing only their first names. About six months after the transplant, he sent a letter, and continued.
“We can’t say anything to identify us. I started writing to the family, pretty much every six months and never got a response. I was able to check and knew the letters were being picked up, so I continued writing.”
Then things changed. In 2014, Basil participated in the Transplant Games of America in Houston, Texas, winning two gold medals in darts. When he got home, he decided to send one of them to the donor family.
“Within a week, I was out and came home to a voicemail from a woman who asked ‘if this is the person who sent us a medal would you please call us?’ I have to say, I got that message and I must’ve played it five or six times. I just felt a little awkward and said to myself, I’m so happy they saved my life but I’m so sorry she died. So I got the courage to call them. We had a nice conversation and I had lunch with them, we send cards back and forth and stay in touch.” He believes that the family was able to find him by looking up his name from the competition. Basil has since met the husband of his donor.
“I think it’s good for me and for him. I have this sense of responsibility,” he said. “I want to do good things. I feel that someone gave me a second chance on life and I don’t want to waste it.”
As for those who might consider registering as an organ donor, for Basil said, “There’s no reason not to be a donor. To me, being a donor is saving a life and what could be more heroic than a person’s last act being to save a life? There’s no reason not to.”
Basil added that there are about 110,000 patients on the transplant waiting list across the country, with about 4,000 in New Jersey alone. “There is a serious shortage,” he said, “about 21 people on the list die every day waiting.”
Information on how to become a donor or be involved can be easily had by logging onto the NJ Sharing Network website. “I do some volunteer work with the Sharing Network and New York Presbyterian Hospital. I attend a support group meeting there and we go to visit patients in the liver disease and transplant wing. I’m also part of the mentor program the hospital runs. They connect me with someone starting their transplant journey to help guide them through. I was talking with a gentleman since September of last year, and he just got his transplant. So that was kind of fulfilling and he’s going great.”
And Basil continues to have fun, too, while being a part of something bigger. "The Transplant Games of America is kind of an Olympic style competition for the transplant community, held every two years in a different city. July 17-22, 2020, it’ll be centered around the Meadowlands at the American Dream [Mall]. There will be events throughout the major venues. There is an opening ceremony and a closing ceremony, and competition in just about everything you could expect: track and field, swimming, tennis, golf, darts, basketball, badminton, everything. I’ve been playing darts the last few years, I’m starting to get decent with it.”
Since winning the two gold medals in Texas, Basil won two silvers, although he fell short last time. “I’ll get them this time,” he assured TAPinto Hawthorne.
Basil described the Olympic-style games with enthusiasm. “We expect about 15,000 people to come, it’s a big event. There are teams from just about every state, Puerto Rico, we even occasionally get a foreign team. We had one from Australia. It’s broken down into age groups and they give gold, silver, and bronze medals. They also have non-physical games like poker, trivia, a singing competition. It’s a great experience and pulls the transplant community together and everyone realizes they aren’t alone.”
The Hawthorne competitor looks forward to the games, but also to the spirit of community that helps uplift those who have undergone transplant operations. “We’re trying to show the world that we are regular people. It’s a celebration of life and the success of the transplantation.”