AURORA — He didn’t get to meet with President Donald Trump, but Aurora heart transplant recipient Gene Shimandle believes his 26-day, 357-mile walk from the Cleveland Clinic to Washington, D.C. went a long way toward creating organ donation awareness.
Shimandle left April 11, his 62nd birthday, and arrived in D.C. on May 7, one day before the first anniversary of his 2017 heart transplant. “Phenomenal” and “extraordinary” were two words he used to describe his trek.
His plans were to finish up the trip May 8, but he made it to D.C. one day early, despite walking through a spring blizzard in eastern Ohio during the first week of the journey.
One of his main reasons for the trip was to throw out the idea of creating an archive for organ donors and recipients at the Smithsonian Institution. He said he met with a high-ranking official there and “she loved the idea.”
He said he was told it would take an act of Congress to set up that type of recognition, so Shimandle plans to write letters to U.S. representatives and senators to promote it.
Shimandle said he spoke to U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and his staff, plus U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s staff. In fact, he appeared at a coffee that Portman sponsored for his constituents, at which Portman allowed him to share his story with several people.
Shimandle began the trip at the Cleveland Clinic, where he received a new heart last year. The heart came from a young man who died in a traffic crash. He then stopped at an elementary school in Bedford.
It was in the Salem, Ohio area where he encountered a blizzard a few days later. In western Pennsylvania, Shimandle said the weather was chilly and rainy, and it was a challenge to walk along narrow Route 51 in Pennsylvania with semi trucks roaring by.
In Pittsburgh, he met a fellow whose father was facing open heart surgery. He assured him everything would go well, and the son has since contacted him and said his dad came through the surgery just fine.
While he walked along the Allegheny Trail and Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath, he met a young woman whose father also was facing open heart surgery, and reassured her things would be OK. She also later informed him the surgery went well.
“In Pittsburgh, someone told me about the two trails, which I didn’t know about when I planned my route,” he said. “Most of the trails were level and made my trek a lot easier.”
Shimandle had 1,000 “walking cards” printed up, and he said he handed out all but one of them during the journey. The cards explained what his mission was.
As Shimandle entered Washington, D.C., a film crew and reporter from a CBS television station there filmed and interviewed him. He noted media at other spots along his route also were eager to tell his story.
Shimandle said in D.C. he talked to someone at the Welsh embassy who told him an “opt-out” program has increased organ donations in that country by 66 percent in recent years, and he’s hopeful the United States will embrace that concept.
The U.S. employs an opt-in program, meaning people have to actively sign up to a register to donate their organs after death. In opt-out systems, organ donation occurs automatically unless a specific request is made before death for organs not to be taken.
In a study a few years ago, researchers from the University of Nottingham, University of Stirling and Northumbria University in the U.K. found that countries using opt-out systems had higher total numbers of kidneys donated and a greater overall number of transplants.
Shimandle has invited about 80 friends, relatives and well-wishers to a May 20 “welcome back home” gathering at D’Angelos Italian Restaurant in Twinsburg, when he will present to his heart donor’s family a flag signed by 200 people whom he met on his trip.
“The trip was well worth it; it was a blessed journey,” said Shimandle in summing up his experience. “I accomplished what I wanted to do, and only time will tell if my dream of creating a national archive for organ donors and recipients comes true.”
Shimandle was disagnosed with heart failure in 2005 when he was teaching advanced cardiac life support at Case Western Reserve University Medical School. He was on the transplant list for 12 years.
Last Thanksgiving, he ran in the Aurora 5K Turkey Trot. He hopes to participate this year in Aurora’s July 4 fun run and later in his second Turkey Trot.
Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 ext. 4189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.