Organ recipient dedicates life to spreading awareness

Published 9:48 am Thursday, July 16, 2015

At first glance, Berrien County resident Lonnie Atherton looks like most healthy men in their 50s.

Lonnie has the tall, broad structure of an athlete, the tan skin of an avid golfer, the booming voice of a man accustomed to public speaking, and the liver of a 20-year-old who saved his life.

Leader photo/MICHAEL CALDWELL Lonnie Atherton speaks to the Niles Noon Optimist Club about the importance of organ donation.

Lonnie Atherton speaks to the Niles Noon Optimist Club about the importance of organ donation.

“I’ve had the gift of life twice,” Atherton told the Niles Noon Optimist Club Tuesday. “That means I’ve had two transplants, two liver transplants by the University of Michigan.”

In 2000, Atherton was told he had Hepatitis C in his liver. Eventually, the Hepatitis turned into liver cancer.

“I was told that it would degrade my liver to the point that I would need a transplant. That transplant came in 2009 after I was very ill and sick,” he said.

When Atherton received his first transplant, he bounced back quickly. About a month after the surgery, however, he became very ill. So ill, in fact, that the doctors said he was too sick to receive another transplant.

“When I was at my sickest I was at 150 pounds, completely yellow and out of my mind. My body was eating itself,” Atherton said.

Doctors told Atherton and his family that he was too sick to undergo the surgery to receive another liver, but his two surgeons fought for him.

“When [the doctor] came to my bed, I said, ‘I need a second liver transplant. I’m ready. Let’s go,’” Atherton said.

Ten days later, he walked out of the hospital on the road to living a healthy and normal life.

While Atherton has never met the family of the deceased young man who saved his life, he does know that the individual was killed in an automobile accident. All of his organs were given to people in need of transplants.

“The recipients all now live like I do. It’s absolutely amazing,” Atherton said.

While Atherton said he will never feel his debt will be repaid, he works hard to show his gratitude to those facing similar terrifying health battles to his. To pay tribute to the physicians who gave him another chance and the donors who saved his life, Atherton dedicates his life to helping others receive the same invaluable gift he received.

Today, there are 3,500 people in Michigan awaiting a major organ transplant. Atherton said the list continues to grow, which is why he pushes so hard to inform the public about the necessity of organ donation.

In Berrien County, 50 percent of the 70,000 drivers are registered to be organ donors, and the secretary of state works with the Gift of Life Michigan to help inform drivers of the possibility to donate their organs.

In addition to his work with Gift of Life Michigan, Atherton leads an organization called Golfers for Organ Donor Awareness, which was designed to raise money for organ donation awareness. .

The annual golf outing will be Aug. 21, at Lake Michigan Hill Golf Course, located at 2520 Kerlikowske Road in Benton Harbor.

The four-person scramble includes golf, cart, a door prize ticket, continental breakfast, lunch awards, a coupon for a second round and even a chance to win a new car. Cost to enter the tournament is $70 per golfer. Tournament proceeds go to benefit the Gift of Life Foundation, which provides financial help for transplant recipients in need, allocates research grants and helps fund programs.

More information can be found at or, or by calling (269) 208-7304.