June 14, 2024

Healt Hid

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‘She fought until the very last day’: Youngwood organ donor helps save 3 after overdose death

7 min read

From the printer to the sweeper to the decorations on the wall, almost everything in Anna Vukovich’s Youngwood home reminds her of her daughter Jennifer.

Jennifer’s comforter is still on the bed in her childhood bedroom, her purse still hangs on a hook on the wall.

“Everytime I pull something out that was hers, I thank her and I talk to her,” Anna said. “I have family pictures on the wall. I’ll just stop and take it all in, tell her how beautiful she was — and is.”

Jennifer Vukovich was a ball of fire, her mother said. She was a talented artist and enjoyed walking her dog, Dozer — a 15-year-old Shih Tzu and King Charles spaniel.

She loved to make people laugh.

“She had a huge laugh, gigantic laugh,” her mother said.

Jennifer died from a drug overdose on March 9, 2023. She was 36 years old.

She struggled with drug addiction for about a decade, living a recovered life for about 2 1/2 years before her death.

“She fought until the very last day,” Anna said. “We fought together to overcome this awful disease.”

A helping hand

Amid her own battle with addiction, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to help others, her mother said.

She earned an associate’s degree in social work from Westmoreland County Community College in 2022. She was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the field at PennWest California University while working as a care navigator in Monessen when she relapsed.

“She exposed herself to too much, too soon,” Anna said of the job, where Jennifer worked directly with clients who struggled with drug addiction.

“But then again, it comes into her wanting to help others,” she said.

Even after her death, Jennifer carried out her mission. As an organ donor, she helped to save three people’s lives.

A 49-year-old woman from Ohio received both of Jennifer’s lungs, and a 61-year-old man from Western Pennsylvania received her right kidney.

A 67-year-old man from New York received Jennifer’s left kidney. He traveled to Bangladesh shortly after the surgery — a story which still makes Anna smile. All of the patients reported a positive health status in their one-year follow-up appointments.

Jennifer registered to become an organ donor when she renewed her driver’s license in December 2022 — just three months before her death.

Her organ donor story caught the eye of the nonprofit Center for Organ Recovery & Education.

More than 150 hospitals across the center’s Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia service area celebrate national Donate Life Month in April, hosting flag raising ceremonies and sharing donor stories, said spokesperson Katelynn Metz.

Three Independence Health System Hospitals honored Jennifer last month by serving her favorite foods in their cafeterias — brownies with chocolate fudge frosting, chili, cheesy eggs and wedding soup.

“Jennifer saved three lives when she passed away as an organ donor, but who knows — maybe reading about her will save even more lives,” Metz said.

State need for organ donors persists

Even if someone is registered to donate their organs, there is a high chance not all of their organs can be transplanted.

Of the more than 30,000 potential organ donors who died in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia last year, only 404 people were able to donate, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Viable organ donations come from patients who die on a ventilator in a hospital with a specific non-recoverable brain injury, Metz said.

“That’s all the more reason we need people to register,” she said.

There are very few health conditions that prevent people from registering as an organ donor, Metz said. Cancer patients who are in remission or have cancerous cells that spread from where they first formed are the only individuals to be routinely ruled out. Previous drug use, for example, does not inhibit someone from donating.

It is much easier to qualify to donate tissue or a cornea, Metz said — which include heart valves for pediatric patients, skin for burn victims and tissue for people recovering from breast cancer.

The 404 donations saved nearly 1,000 lives last year, Metz said. This milestone marks the service area’s fifth record-breaking year for donations, which have increased from 10% to 20% each year since 2019.

About 50% of Pennsylvanians are registered organ donors — 10% lower than the national average, Metz said. There are about 7,000 people across the state waiting for an organ donation.

Even though Jennifer’s family could have prevented her organs from being donated, Anna knew that is not what her daughter wanted.

“It just followed in line with her wanting to help people,” Anna said. “And I mean, she did. There’s three people alive today because of what she did.”

The center told Anna they wanted to highlight Jennifer during Donate Life Month over a phone call the week of March 24 — Holy Week in the Catholic faith.

A devoted Catholic, Anna felt it was no coincidence she received the news during the final week of the Lenten season.

“I had a dream about (Jennifer) that was just absolutely beautiful, and I felt like in my dream that she had risen from everything,” Anna said. “Then, the next day, I got that call from CORE.”

“I felt like I was in a bottomless pit during that time last year,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “But this year, I felt like she rose, and so did I, in a way, from some of it.”

Lasting impact

Tim Phillips misses Jennifer to this day.

“She was the person I would call upon to help with speaking events,” said Phillips, the director of the Westmoreland County Department of Community Relations and Prevention.

The two met during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting Phillips led years ago, and they kept in touch.

While studying social work at Westmoreland County Community College, Jennifer worked with Phillips to organize a Narcan demonstration on campus. It has continued annually since 2020.

Now, Narcan is available in each defibrillator station on the campus, Phillips said.

“It’s life-saving,” he said. “Time is of the essence, so the sooner we can save someone from a near-fatal overdose, the better.”

County drug overdose deaths decreased by nearly 20% last year, according to Coroner Tim Carson.

Cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription opioid overdoses have decreased. And heroin overdoses are down 50%, accounting for just three deaths.

Fentanyl deaths are down 22%, but still leading the pack. Veterinary sedative xylazine was responsible for 44 deaths in 2023 — a 42% increase from the previous year.

The Community Relations & Prevention Department was formed about a year ago to increase the county’s scope of services, Phillips said. Its role was formerly managed by the county Drug Overdose Task Force, which now operates under the department.

The department works to help residents facing homelessness, poverty, transportation issues and food insecurity, Phillips said. It aims to meet residents’ basic needs and support them beyond the rehab facility.

“We want to take a public health approach more than a Band-Aid approach,” he said.

Jennifer inspired professors at her community college to help students move forward from a criminal background and pursue a career. She worked for years to clear from her record of driving violations and a DUI related to her drug use, which caused her to temporarily lose her license.

“That’s the hardest obstacle Jen had to overcome,” said Stephanie Turin, a human services professor at the college. “She spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to get her record clear, because all she really wanted to do was go help people, and there was society throwing these roadblocks in her way.”

The Advocacy Center — which opened just days after Jennifer’s death — helps students understand their legal rights and overcome hurdles such as alcohol offenses, custody concerns, expungements and landlord issues.

A photograph of Jennifer hangs on a wall at the center, just above a plant grown in her memory.

The center receives two or three emails each week from students requesting aid, said legal studies professor Julie Zappone. About 50 people came out to the center’s free one-day clinic in April, which connects attendees with an attorney to pursue expungement or a governor’s pardon.

Struggle with addiction

Jennifer lived with her parents up until about two years ago, when she moved into a home of her own just up the street.

“She never ventured too far,” Anna said. “She needed us. We needed her, too, but she needed us. And we were always there for her.”

Family was Jennifer’s greatest support system in recovery, Anna said.

“We had our share of battles, but my family always stayed true to her,” she said. “We weren’t the family that pushed her out onto the street.”

Jennifer went to a number of rehab facilities across her decade-long battle with addiction, Anna said.

“We were just Googling facilities, calling 800 numbers on the back of a card, looking up places, calling them, only to get turned down because they either didn’t take your insurance or they didn’t have a bed or it was too far away or it was just not a nice place,” Anna said. “Like I said, it was just one roadblock after another after another.”

Turning Point in Washington, Pa,. was the facility that changed Jennifer’s life. A pillow emblazoned with the Turning Point logo decorates the bed in Jennifer’s former room at her parents’ house.

But drug addiction was not the only difficulty in Jennifer’s life.

A therapist in Connellsville, who Jennifer saw for two years, diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder — likely the product of multiple losses in her life.

Jennifer’s close friend died in a boating accident when they were in high school. Her fiance was killed just minutes from the Vukovich’s home in 2009, and she lost several friends that she met throughout her recovery journey.

She struggled with the shame and guilt of her addiction, Jennifer’s therapist told Anna. But toward the end of her life, Jennifer made great strides in owning her story.

“She was able to overcome so much of that and to live a sober life for the 2 1/2 years that she did,” Anna said.

Quincey Reese is a TribLive reporter covering the Greensburg and Hempfield areas. She also does reporting for the Penn-Trafford Star. A Penn Township native, she joined the Trib in 2023 after working as a Jim Borden Scholarship intern at the company for two summers. She can be reached at [email protected].

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