Donate Life Month: A new heart for Harrison

Posted at 4:10 PM, Apr 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-18 18:11:30-04

By the age of 7, Harrison O’Toole had experienced what many adults never have to.

Complications from Kawasaki disease had severely damaged the boy’s heart. He suffered multiple heart attacks. He was fitted with a pacemaker, but his condition continued to worsen. Soon, he was in heart failure.

Harrison spent two months at Primary Children’s Hospital waiting for the miracle that would save his life: a new heart.

“It’s always hard to think back the decision the other family had to make, and how intense and how devastating that decision must have been for that family at that time,” recalls Harrison’s mother, Gina O’Toole.

“You feel so much gratitude that someone would rescue your child in that time of need. We are grateful for every day, for every moment. The true kindness of that family, complete strangers, donating in their worst moment, is amazing. It’s amazing that people can come together like that and support each other.”

April is Donate Life Month, a national observation aimed at raising awareness about donation, encouraging Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors, and honoring the people who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

The Primary Children’s transplant program is recognized as one of the most active pediatric transplant programs in the nation. A collaborative effort with the University of Utah, the transplant program helps children needing heart, kidney, liver (full and split) and bone marrow transplants. It also provides comprehensive care to children receiving transplants, including surgeons, social workers, pharmacists, dietitians, child life specialists, and expressive therapies like music and art therapy.

“More than 100,000 people, including children, need a life-saving organ transplant in the United States. Because of organ shortages, about 17 people die every day waiting for a transplant. That includes more than 1,900 children under the age of 18 waiting for the gift of life,” said Cecile Aguayo, RN, pediatric transplant services director at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

“During National Donate Life Month, we give thanks to the families and friends of donors who have supported their loved one’s decision to save lives by donating,” Aguayo said. “We honor those who have given this most extraordinary of gifts.”

Right now, 41 children in the Intermountain West have been listed for heart, kidney or liver transplantation.

Every year at Primary Children’s Hospital, on average:

  • 10 children, like Harrison, receive a heart transplant.
  • 14 children receive a liver transplant, including patients as young as 7 weeks old up to 22 years old. Primary Children’s experts also provide living liver donor transplants.
  • 18 children receive kidney transplants. About half Primary Children’s kidney donors are living donors.

Additionally, more than 700 children from 13 states and four countries have received bone marrow transplants to treat various cancers and other diseases at Primary Children’s Hospital as of 2019. Another 16 received CAR-T immune therapy infusions in that time frame.

Since receiving his new heart five years ago, Harrison has been enjoying hiking, basketball and soccer, and more recently, pick-up football games with friends after school. He’s also competed in the Transplant Games, including the 50-meter dash, pickleball, and the obstacle course.

"If you are thinking of being an organ donor, it will make a big difference in someone's life,” Harrison said. “They will be really grateful."

Harrison enjoys hanging out with his friends and his two brothers, cooking, skiing, camping, learning about history – and is always ready for his next adventure.

“He takes daily medicines for his immune system, but other than that, you really wouldn’t know what he’s been through,” Gina said. “His transplant team is amazing. They’re right on top of it and make sure he has what he needs at regular checkups.”

Harrison probably will need another heart transplant someday, his mom says. For now, they’re thankful for what they have, and look forward to Harrison’s very bright future.

For more information, visit