In 2008, Joe Lafferty started dialysis just as another season of Woodland Hills High School football was kicking off. He was coaching at the same school where he first played as a teenager, a member of the starting line-up after surviving childhood cancer. His players never noticed his health problems before—they called him “Coach Ha-ha,” a play on the sound of his last name. But that season, Joe survived a pulmonary embolism and was added to the organ transplant list for a kidney and pancreas. Through dialysis and heart valve replacements, he never stopped supporting his players. He travelled with them to Dallas only ten days after his hospital discharge, to coach on the field in 100 degree heat. Joe’s presence on the sidelines, he found out later, was a constant source of inspiration for his players that season, and a reminder of perseverance that many players carried through adulthood.
More than two years after he was added to the transplant list, Joe finally got the call he’d been waiting for. He drove to the Starzl Transplant Clinic at UPMC Mentefiore, where he’d receive both of his new organs on February 14th— National Organ Donor Day. His donor was a 16-year-old boy named Justin, who was declared brain dead after a car accident. Joe remembers spending the night before the surgery lying awake, thinking. Not about his upcoming transplant, but of Justin and the people who loved him. He sent texts to his family and friends, asking them to send thoughts and prayers to the boy who was giving him another chance at life.
“One friend made me realize this would be the last night we, my donor and I, would be on Earth together,” said Joe. “I knew then that I would live every day in honor of the gift given me.”
It took two years after his transplant, but Joe was finally given the chance to meet the people he thought of most— Justin’s family. On the day Justin would have graduated high school, Joe spoke at the ceremony alongside Justin’s parents about the importance of service to others. Today, Joe is dedicated to organ donation, and has worked with Play it Forward Pittsburgh at different events this season to share his story and register more donors. He has learned to appreciate every moment, and continues to live on what he calls “Justin Time.”
Organ Recipient Champ: Joe Lafferty @thejoelafferty