Howard Nathan’s organization is called Gift of Life and, throughout his career, that is what the Jewish Devon resident has tried to provide.
He has largely succeeded, according to colleagues and beneficiaries.
Nathan, 68, spent his career organizing organ transplants for people who needed them. He would have to convince the family of one patient on his deathbed to allow his organs to be donated. Then, Nathan and his Gift of Life Donor Program team would coordinate the process of getting the part from one body to another.
That career lasted more than four decades and included more than 55,000 organ transplants, according to an email celebrating his career from Richard Hasz, Gift of Life’s new president and CEO. Nathan stepped down in January and attended an in-person celebration of his career on June 29. Gift of Life also renamed its support and lodging center for families who are going through transplants from the Gift of Life Family House to Gift of Life Howie’s House.
“His tireless dedication, leadership and mentorship have influenced best donation practices and policies regionally, across the United States and around the world,” Hasz wrote.
Ironically, Nathan never planned on going into the field. He wanted to be a doctor, but he didn’t get into medical school when he applied after graduating from Juniata College.
Since Nathan thought he would apply again, he started to beef up his resume. He worked on a microscope in a lab, researching cancer and rabies. Then he enrolled in a graduate program in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. But he wasn’t happy there, either, so he answered an ad for a job organizing kidney transplants for surgeons in the Philadelphia area.
“It was basically surgeons who created a nonprofit to get people to donate kidneys,” Nathan said.
At the time, he was still thinking of medical school.
“I thought, ‘I’ll apply to this job, and these guys will get me in,’” he said.
Nathan got no answer at first, but he kept reaching out. Finally, the manager brought him in and told him he had no experience. In response, the young man offered a proposition: He would work for free for three months.
“He hired me,” Nathan said.
In 1978, kidney transplants were the only transplants that doctors did. Nathan’s job was to find and convince potential donors for patients at five area hospitals, including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
The aspiring doctor thought the job was cutting edge and that it would combine his interests in research and medicine— a solid resume booster for med school applications.
But then he started working.
Nathan would get calls at 3 a.m. and have to drive to Scranton, Reading and other locations. He would walk into a hospital room and see a family whose relative was not going to make it. Those patients were “legally and medically dead, but their organs were still working,” Nathan explained.
To convince family members to allow the donation, Nathan took a straightforward approach.
“This can be a legacy for that person’s life,” he said.
Once that hard part was over, the next one began. Nathan got doctors and nurses to cooperate, organizing the teams for surgical recoveries and placing the kidneys with recipients. The process could take 24-48 hours with no sleep.
And he loved it.
“This was bigger than life,” Nathan said.
And it became the rest of his life.
In 1983, the man who hired Nathan left the organization, and Nathan applied to take his place as executive director. He got the job overseeing a team of 10 people.
Eventually, both his team and his mission grew. In the early 1980s, heart and liver transplants became more common, and the Gift of Life leader made sure to show up at press conferences celebrating successful procedures that he helped organize. He wanted to make sure that donors got credit in addition to the doctors.
“Transplants don’t happen without a donor,” Nathan said.
While Gift of Life is based in Philadelphia, it helps people all over the country. In a January profile of Nathan, The Wall Street Journal called it “the largest and most successful organ donor and transplant network in the country.” Nathan has traveled to 33 countries, including Israel, to share best practices with doctors and medical institutions.
“Howard has had a tremendous impact not only in the Philadelphia area but nationally as well,” said Robert Goodman, a Westampton, New Jersey, resident and a recipient of a heart transplant from Gift of Life. “He is truly a well-known expert, and if he’s not the best at what he’s done, he’s in the top two or three.” JE