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THESE ARE THE FOLKS WHO GIVE BACK LIVES

Bill Minahan loves to tell the story about his kidney transplant.

Well, Minahan, a former Jesuit football coach and athletic director, loves to tell a lot of stories. His favorite, however, is about the life-altering experience made possible by the LifeLink Foundation and Tampa General.

"They were preparing me for surgery and Dr. Bobby Lazzara was assisting Dr. John Ackermann," Minahan explained with the same passion he used to whip his teams into a frenzy. "The whole time he was talking about when we played Titusville Astronaut - they were 10-0 and we were 10-0 - and how he made this touchdown run to help us beat them in 1975."

Minahan can go on and on about the experience. He can tell you about the 2 1/2 years he spent on dialysis before the surgery, the day he learned LifeLink had located a donor. Most important, he can tell the story 21 years after the surgery.

"My whole life changed in front of me," Minahan said. "They gave me a new life. I can do anything I want to do.

"We have a saying: You don't need your organs in heaven. Heaven knows we need them down here."

Minahan's gratitude has led him to champion the associations and groups facilitating transplants for others, and at the top of the list is LifeLink. The Tampa-based nonprofit recovers organs and tissues in West Central Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico for transplants across the country. It employs 550 employees and has an annual budget of $80-million.

LifeLink's rich history in Tampa Bay dates back to 1972. That year, Dana Shires came down from Gainesville to serve as one of its founders and first doctors. You may have seen him on a commercial saluting him as a co-creator of Gatorade.

He remains on board as one of the proud fathers of what LifeLink has become, a national leader in the field of transplants. It ranks fifth nationally for heart transplants, and in the top 20 for kidney and lung transplants. In 2006, it facilitated 425 organ transplants and its likely to surpass that number this year.

The success rate for all of those is at or above the national average thanks largely to a dedicated immunology laboratory - led by William LeFor - that ensures the matches are true and the post-operative care is complete.

LifeLink also strives to promote organ donations, and honors those who made that choice with a commemorative wall in its Tampa office that lists the name of recent donors. The wall includes James Dungy, son of former Bucs coach Tony Dungy.

President and chief operating officer Dennis Heinrichs brags about the work of LifeLink like a devoted Bucs or Lightning fan, but can you blame him? He has watched the facility grow by leaps and bounds while never losing what's most important: heart.

You see, along with touting LifeLink's great contributions, Heinrichs also is quick to talk up LifeLink's Legacy Fund, which raises money so that no patient suffering from organ failure has to be turned away. Last year it provided more than $1-million in donated medical care.

Ask people about Tampa Bay's great institutions, and we're apt to mention Tampa International, the University of South Florida, the Dali Museum or maybe even the Columbia Restaurant.

I think it's time we add LifeLink to the list.

That's all I'm saying.

ehooper@sptimes.com

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