BRANDON — Last year, Leland Jones' family watched him get sicker and sicker, taking trip after trip to the emergency room of a California hospital as his body's ammonia levels rose so high he began experiencing dementia-like symptoms.
Jones' liver stopped working and he needed a new one — soon. He was told the waiting list at the UCLA Medical Center was two years.
Jones didn't have two years.
Then last spring his California doctor suggested that Jones and his wife should consider "looking for real estate in Florida," as transplant wait times seemed to be shorter. Jones followed his doctor's suggestion.
"We picked up and moved out here to Brandon," Jones said. "I was accepted on the waiting list, but I still waited four and a half months after we moved. I thought it would only be a month or two, but there were other people sicker than me that moved up the list or the donated livers were not compatible matches for me."
A 2 a.m. phone call from LifeLink on Aug. 2 changed everything, and by Aug. 3 Jones had a new liver.
Now the 64-year-old and his wife, Patty, visit with five children and 11 grandchildren when not residing in their new Apollo Beach home.
He rides his bike every day, swims in the community pool in South Shore Falls, and walks to the gym at the clubhouse for workouts.
Ultimately, Jones' move to Florida yielded positive results and now LifeLink hopes its move to the Brandon area will pay even greater dividends.
Originally located in Tampa, LifeLink of Florida and LifeLink Tissue Bank recently moved into new 83,000- and 66,000-square-foot facilities, respectively, at 9661 Delaney Creek Blvd. off U.S. 301 in the Brandon area.
The state-of-the art facility sits on 12 acres of carefully planned space and also includes the Transplantation Immunology Laboratory, which carefully matches donor organs and suitable recipients and operates 24 hours a day.
After vacating the facility on Bayshore Drive in Tampa, LifeLink sold the building to Tampa General Hospital for use for living donations, those donations of tissue and organs from living donors.
"It's nice to see the Bayshore facility remain in use for what it was intended — transplants," said Ruth Duncan Bell, senior vice president of public affairs, who listed several reasons for the move to Brandon, including a location with ease of access for the service area and not being situated in a flood zone.
Throughout the new facility are memorials and displays commemorating the donors, their families, and their lifesaving gifts. The lobby prominently features the "Tree of Life," a wood and glass image of a tree with the names of all donors from the previous year. Also in the lobby and throughout the various departments within LifeLink are memorial quilts with a square for either a donor or recipient.
"We want to remember why we do what we do, and the Tree of Life and the quilts help us do that," Bell said.
For more than 32 years, LifeLink has helped patients. It serves 15 counties in west-central Florida as a nonprofit organization dedicated to recovering tissue and organs from donors.
According to LifeLink, one organ donor has the potential to save up to eight lives; an organ and tissue donor can save up to 50 people who need lifesaving transplants. Like Jones, there are 121,000 people waiting for transplants nationally, 500 of which are in Florida and include children and teenagers.
According to Bell, a majority of donors register with the Department of Motor Vehicles when they get drivers licenses, but a significant number also sign up online at DonateLifeFlorida.org.
Though most of the organization's community activities revolve around its commitment to organ and tissue recovery, LifeLink also spends its resources educating the public and members of the medical community.
Jones helps them spread the word.
"Anywhere there is a gathering of people, we go educate people on organ donation and ask people if they haven't already signed up to be an organ donor," Jones said. "I was just at a 5K run and I signed up three people that day. I tell people to look at me. I just got a liver transplant in August and I probably would not have been here to meet my new granddaughter born three weeks ago."
In fact, Jones also would have missed Thanksgiving with family in Rhode Island and a December trip to see family and friends in California.
Knowing that recipients like Jones get more time with loved ones is why Bell said she loves her job.
"In a small way we are contributing to saving lives, and there is nothing more rewarding."
LifeLink's move has also had a tangible effect for the Brandon community as a whole with the reputation it brings.
Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Laura Simpson noted that the state-of-the-art facility of one of the chamber's newest members brought 200-plus jobs to the area.
"Their innovative and leading-edge, lifesaving technology truly is remarkable and is showcasing the greater Brandon community worldwide," Simpson said.
Though Jones is aware of the significance of an organization like LifeLink to the community, he mostly recognizes the significance for individual recipients.
"Plain and simple, what they did for me was find me a donor," Jones said. "But even better was I got to see my wife smile again. I had not seen her smile in six months to a year, and there she was after the transplant, telling me how good I looked and how I got my color back, and she had a big smile."
Shannan D. Powell can be reached at [email protected]