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Living Donors Advocate for Donation with Biking Adventures Along ‘The Organ Trail’

Written by Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor


Meet Mark and Lynn Scotch, a husband-and-wife living donor duo advocating for organ, eye, and tissue donation across the country. After learning that 17 people die each day waiting for a transplant, Mark decided to turn his passion for bike riding into a life-saving advocacy and education journey, creatively named “The Organ Trail,” in which he rides across the country to share the power of organ, eye, and tissue donation with others. Mark and Lynn are simultaneously busting myths, showing that living donors can return to their previous health and activity levels. SODA got to chat with the couple and learn why they decided to become donors and what life has been like since. 


When Mark Met Hugh


The story begins at the former Cane River Brewing Co. in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in early 2020, when Mark Scotch walks into a bar. With all those “a person walks into a bar” jokes, it’s nice to hear a heartwarming story every once in a while. There, Mark, who was then in his early sixties, met 56-year-old Hugh Smith. The two started chatting, and after an hour or so, Hugh got up to leave, sharing with Mark that he was on dialysis and on the waitlist for a new kidney. Without hesitation, Mark offered to donate his kidney to Hugh.


Mark would need to learn more about kidney donation, but he was serious about helping Hugh. His sister-in-law had donated a kidney twelve years prior, and though he hadn’t asked her about the experience, he felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. 


“It just seemed like, ‘Wow, what can I do to help you?’” Mark said of his instantaneous reaction. “You know, it was just kind of like that. If giving a kidney [could] help this guy, it just seemed like, why not? … Somehow I looked at it as an opportunity. We didn't realize that so many people are on the [kidney] waitlist, and people are dying, waiting for organs. We’d just assumed that there was no need. [But then] here's a guy standing in front of me, I'm gonna take advantage of this. … I want to do this, as crazy as that sounds.”


If anything, Mark’s main concern was that he wouldn’t be a match for Hugh, because he felt he had inadvertently given Hugh so much hope. But overall, the occasion was serendipitous; Mark noted that, had Hugh not continued to live his normal life as best as he could, they would never have met at that brewery. Lynn and Mark saw firsthand the importance of conversation and word-of-mouth. If Hugh hadn’t told them about his health issues as he got up to leave, they would never have known and would not have been able to give him the gift of life. 


Mark and Hugh


Let’s Talk About the Voucher Program and Donation Chains


After extensive medical testing, Mark was matched with a compatible recipient in September 2020 and donated his kidney. That’s right—Mark didn’t donate his kidney directly to Hugh but instead used an important process known as chain donation through the National Kidney Registry Voucher Program to move Hugh up the waitlist. 


Donor chains allow incompatible but enthusiastic and healthy donors the opportunity to save lives. A non-directed donor initiates the chain, donating their kidney without a particular recipient in mind. The non-directed donors facilitate a chain of donations and transplants between incompatible donors and recipients. Basically, it’s a system of “paying it forward” along the chain as incompatible donors give kidneys to unknown recipients who are a match, again expanding the chain.


Graphic explaining donation chains from NKR


In February 2021, Hugh received his life-saving kidney. The donation chain created by the Voucher Program allowed Mark’s kidney to go to someone in 2020 while someone else’s kidney went to Hugh five months later. While the Voucher Program can create a donation chain, it also allows people with no particular recipient in mind to donate altruistically. Additionally, it allowed Mark to do everything—from the tests to the donation—at his local hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, while Hugh could stay at his local hospital in Mississippi. 


Lynn said she wants people to know that, thanks to donation chains, they don’t have to be a match with someone in order to donate. 


“We hear stories so often of people who went in and were evaluated for somebody they knew or somebody they [knew] of, and in the meantime, the [potential recipient got] matched with another donor,” Lynn explained. “And the facilities just say, ‘Thanks for coming in, have a nice life.’ And it's like no, tell the person they can donate, you know, for someone else and still put that kidney out there and save somebody's life.”


If you’d like to become an organ, eye, and tissue donation advocate and help educate your community about all things organ donation, including donation chains, learn how you can start a SODA chapter or join an existing one on your campus at sodanational.org/students.


Double the Impact: Lynn Donates to Cooper


When Mark went for his full-day evaluation at UW Health, Lynn joined him. She heard everything the doctors told him about kidney donation.


“That afternoon, as he was finishing up the last of his medical tests, I was sitting in the room by myself, and I was thinking, I can’t come up with one good reason why I shouldn’t look into doing this myself,” Lynn told SODA. “Because, it just seemed—what more impactful thing can you do for someone at so little impact on yourself?”


Lynn’s kidney donation process lasted approximately 2.5 years. UW Health temporarily suspended their living donor surgeries when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Once they resumed those surgeries, Lynn was given her surgery date, which she had to push back by approximately sixty days after she received a positive COVID diagnosis. 


She was all set for her donation surgery on March 24, 2021, having checked into the hotel in Madison and everything, when she received a call that her pre-op bloodwork showed that her platelets had dropped drastically, putting her at risk for clotting. After ruling out any serious medical issues, she began getting monthly blood draws at a local clinic to monitor her platelet count. Several months passed, and her platelet count rose. She was greenlit to donate again.


Lynn made sure that her family and friends would be okay before looking further afield for someone to give her voucher to. That’s when she learned about Cooper.


Cooper’s mom had posted his story and his imminent need for a kidney on their Facebook page, called “I’m awesome, it’s my kidneys that suck.” Cooper’s grandmother shared one of these posts on Facebook, and her former co-worker saw it. That former coworker knew Mark from the marathons they’d completed together and had also ridden along for part of the first Organ Trail ride. He shared the post on his Facebook page and tagged Mark and Lynn. Shortly thereafter, Lynn was in touch with Cooper’s parents. She decided to make Cooper her voucher recipient.


Watch Mark and Lynn reunite with Hugh AND watch them meet Cooper and his parents in person on The Today Show. 


Mark Didn’t Stop After His Kidney Donation


During the process of learning about kidney donation, Mark also learned that it’s possible to be a living liver donor as it can regenerate itself after damage. After his donation, Mark spoke to UW Health about the possibility of being a living liver donor, but they informed him that they had an age limit of 60 years old. At the time, Mark was 65 years old.


Later, while having a conversation with a nurse from Keck Medicine of USC, Mark learned that Keck had an age cap of seventy years old. In October of 2022, Mark got in touch with them and went to get evaluated. One doctor, who specialized in adult donation, told him it would be impossible because, though his liver was perfectly healthy, its structure would make it difficult to do the procedure safely.


Just when Mark thought he wouldn’t be able to donate, another doctor, who specialized in pediatric donation, entered and told him he could donate but only to a baby or small child. Doctors would just remove a small portion of Mark’s liver.


On May 28, 2023, Mark donated part of his liver. Upon being discharged from the hospital, he and Lynn were able to meet the young recipient and her family at the children’s hospital. 


‘The Organ Trail’ Was Born


About 23 days after his kidney donation surgery, Mark got back on his bike. While he could only ride for 15-20 minutes at first, he slowly increased the time he spent on the bike as he prepared for his journey along ‘The Organ Trail,’ which allows him and Lynn to advocate for organ, eye, and tissue donation across the country. 


Before Facebook, Mark was a member of an online forum for a mountain bike magazine called Dirt Rag. There, he connected with a few guys, and when the forum was shut down, they moved it to Facebook, which was newly out and gaining traction. When Mark decided to ride for organ donation, he decided to send a message in the group and see if they had any ideas for a name. That’s when someone suggested “The Organ Trail.”


“With The Organ Trail, we’re getting the word out and [saying], hey, even if people aren’t in a time in their life where [donation] makes sense, if you can plant a seed, you never know where it might grow, or when it might grow,” Mark said. 


Lynn added, “If they learned something, and then they share that with somebody else who might share it with somebody else who might share it with somebody else, somewhere down the line, that seed is planted, or somebody goes, ‘Wow, I think I could do that.’ And you just never know where the ripples from that pond are gonna go.”


The first unofficial ride was a distance of 90 miles from Plover, Wisconsin, to Madison a few weeks before Mark’s kidney donation surgery. In the Spring following his surgery, Mark and friends rode approximately 1500 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, to Hugh’s hometown in Louisiana for the first official Organ Trail ride. 


Mark wanted to keep it going, so he decided to bike the routes of the voucher program. His kidney went to a recipient in New York; in the fall of 2021, he rode approximately 1600 miles from Martha’s Vineyard back to his hometown in Wisconsin. Hugh got his kidney from a donor in Southern California; in the winter of 2022, Mark started his ride in San Diego, went up to LA, and got halfway to Lubbock, Texas, riding another 1500 miles. In the spring of 2023, they finished the ride from Lubbock to Baton Rouge. In total, he’s covered approximately 6400 miles along The Organ Trail. 


During each ride, he and Lynn did events (including over 200 media events in total) and worked with hospitals, OPOs, and other organizations to help spread the word about their cause and the importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation advocacy and education. 


Lynn and Mark on the trail


Lynn and Mark encourage students to become advocates in their communities, too. 


 “Outside of being a donor, just learn information [about donation], share it,” Lynn said. “Somewhere down the road, that's going to be a blessing to somebody's life.”

 

Next, Mark wants to bike the routes of Lynn’s voucher program; her kidney went to someone in Illinois. It’s clear that The Organ Trail is just getting started as Lynn and Mark continue to raise awareness for organ, eye, and tissue donation, and it’s shaping up to be quite the memorable, life-saving ride. 


You can follow Mark and Lynn’s advocacy journey on The Organ Trail’s Facebook page and website

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