By Jaedda Armstrong
After listening to a state trooper speak at career day in the fifth grade, Dwight Gochenour knew that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up.
He liked the fact that state troopers enforced the law while helping people in the process.
After three years in the Army, he started his career as a Virginia state trooper in 1967.
But in 1989, Gochenour developed corneal ulcers in his right eye, and by 1993 he was blind in one eye.
“I couldn’t see a battleship going down I-64 sideways,” Gochenour laughed during a phone interview this week.
He had to get a corneal transplant to regain sight and continue the job he loved. Weeks later, Gochenour found out the cornea he received was from a Newport News police officer who died in the line of duty a few days before his surgery.
Gochenour shared his story Tuesday night at LifeNet Health’s special recognition event to honor local police officers participating in a new donor program. Virginia Beach-based LifeNet Health is a non profit organ procurement organization that provides organs and tissue for transplants. The program involves police officers calling LifeNet to report deaths that occur in homes and at crime scenes.
The deceased can be a potential organ or tissue donor, said Dena Reynolds, spokeswoman for LifeNet Health. On average, about 60 percent of reported deaths in Virginia are reported to LifeNet. The organization wants to get the remaining 40.
“Hospitals are required to make referrals to us about deaths,” Reynolds said. “But we found that we were missing calls about people who don’t die in hospitals. These might have been people who were organ donors.”
Since the program started, there have been an additional 64 donors.
Participating Hampton Roads police departments are Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, and Chesapeake. The departments have made the calls mandatory for officers. The organization is working to get all departments in Virginia involved.
“It’s life-enhancing for people who can’t walk or if cancer has destroyed someone’s bones,” Reynolds said. “That all begins with a gift from someone who signed up to be a donor.”
“It’s so simple, just one task to carry on a decedent’s wish of being a donor,” said Jeff Menago, a Virginia Beach police officer.
Menago recently learned that a call he made about a fatal car crash in January helped about 100 people receive tissue. “Just knowing that one time helped so many people is enough for me,” he said.
After his cornea transplant, Gochenour was able to continue his job and retire as a state trooper.
“It helped me so much. I don’t see why the departments wouldn’t go along with it,” Gochenour said. “All it takes is a phone call. One more phone call won’t hurt for what the program does for people.”