Colbians Share Common Objective to Increase Organ and Tissue Donations

Alumni3 min. read

Mackenzie Kennedy Sullivan '16 and Dr. R. Patrick Wood '75 advocate for the gift of life

Dr. R. Patrick Wood ’75 and Mackenzie Kennedy Sullivan ’16
By Claire SykesPhotography by Callaghan O'Hare
November 2, 2021

When Mackenzie Kennedy Sullivan’s father died suddenly of a heart attack in May 2020, he left a gift that not only enhances and saves lives but also inspires her—and another Colby alum she never expected to meet—to urge others toward the same generosity.  

Thanks to her father’s tissue donation at Lifelink of Georgia, 17 bone grafts and multiple skin grafts were made. Bone grafts can help people heal from bone damage or loss due to injury, tumors, deformities, and other orthopedic trauma. Severe-burn and cancer patients can live longer, or just survive at all, with skin grafts

Interestingly, three weeks before her father’s death, Sullivan ’16 had written a final-exam paper on organ and tissue donation. It was for her Legal Issues in Healthcare class at the University of Texas Health Science Center, from which she’ll receive a master’s of public health in healthcare management in 2022. She thought, why not do her graduate practicum at an organ procurement organization (OPO)?

In her search for one, Sullivan came upon LifeGift. It’s among three, federally designated OPOs in Texas, one of their branches in Houston where she lives. She was surprised when she learned that its vice president and chief medical officer, R. Patrick Wood, M.D., FACS, is a Colby graduate. “That was yet another strange coincidence related to my father’s death,” said Sullivan.

“It’s not common for me to hear from a Colby alum,” said Wood ’75. “I was happy to talk with Mackenzie and see what she needed to be successful.”

It turned out there was no administrative practicum at LifeGift that met Sullivan’s goals, so Wood connected her to Texas Children’s Hospital. Working in the outpatient services department, she is helping to expand its specialty programs and clinics. “Everything has come full circle with my career interests and goals,” she said.

“Not everyone has the opportunity to do the job I feel honored every day to do.”

Dr. R. Patrick Wood ’75, vice president and CMO, LifeGift

Sullivan entered Colby as a premed student, wanting to become an emergency physician. “I also enjoyed public health classes, because I was drawn to the pursuit of improving the health status of a population,” said Sullivan, who received her B.A. in government, which is relevant to many fields. 

A highlight of her experience at Colby involved helping to establish a school for HIV/AIDS orphans in Western Kenya, partially funded by a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant. Sullivan’s work with a special population while at Colby “helped to prepare me for a possible career in pediatric healthcare administration. Children, especially those with medical complexities, require a certain type and level of care,” she said. “As I finish my graduate program and transition into my career, I’ll continue my advocacy efforts in the organ/tissue-donation field, educating the public and other healthcare professionals.”  

While Sullivan is just starting out, Wood is approaching retirement. He has been at LifeGift since 1991. Right before that, over the years he pioneered the liver-transplant programs at four major hospitals in Houston. Medical school, a five-year surgical residency, a yearlong organ-transplant fellowship, a professorship in surgery, and private practice followed Wood’s graduation from Colby with a degree in biology. 

He most fondly remembers Colby’s head athletic trainer, Carl Nelson. “He and his wife, Jean, became surrogate parents to me,” said Wood. Through Nelson, he met Dr. Clarence “Doggie” Dore, head of health services and Class of 1939 graduate, who tended to the athletes in the training room where Wood, a football player, worked. On his hospital rounds with Dore, “I saw his bedside manner and how patients came first, demonstrating what a good doctor should be.” He was determined then to be one. 

“Not everyone has the opportunity to do the job I feel honored every day to do,” said Wood, who evaluates donor candidates. They undergo rigorous testing to ensure the viability of their organs and to maximize the number of them to be recovered and transplanted. “The biggest challenge OPOs face is getting donors. The fact that someone has to die—declared brain dead while still in the ICU and on a ventilator to keep the heart beating—is tragic. But multiple lives can be saved.”

“As I finish my graduate program and transition into my career, I’ll continue my advocacy efforts in the organ/tissue-donation field, educating the public and other healthcare professionals.”  

Mackenzie Kennedy Sullivan ’16

The best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to have an end-of-life plan, including the decision to be a donor, said Sullivan. 

No one expected her father to die, at age 62. “He was seemingly healthy, having been an accomplished athlete, even running 37 marathons,” she said. “But unfortunately, he didn’t make it to walk me down the aisle at my wedding or welcome his first grandchild, both only a few months after his death. My own tragedy compels me to advocate for organ and tissue donors and recipients, and their families. I take solace knowing that my loss is not in vain.” 

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