Parents of organ donor share emotional story with LECOM medical students

Starla and John Cassani, D.O. experienced unimaginable grief when their 14-month-old son, Colby, died tragically in 1993. They turned their grief into hope when they made the decision to donate his organs. In 1995, the Cassanis founded the Colby Foundation in their son’s memory. The foundation is devoted to raising awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donation.  


Starla Cassani, founder of the Colby Foundation, spoke to LECOM medical students about the importance of organ donation and showing compassion during times of crisis.

The Cassanis spoke to first and second-year medical students at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie on Thursday, March 17th and at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill on Friday, March 18th. Starla Cassani recounted the emotional story of Colby’s death and their decision to donate Colby’s organs so that three other people could live.

The Cassanis hope that by visiting LECOM and other osteopathic medical schools across the U.S., they can make a powerful impact on students before they become physicians. Organ donation is a topic that will likely come up at some point during their medical careers. “It is our hope that you will talk to your patients, prior to a crisis, about organ and tissue donation,” Starla Cassani said.  The Cassanis previously visited medical students at LECOM Bradenton on February 9th. 

Starla Cassani told the students that Colby was left alone in a bathtub by a babysitter and slid under the water. The tragedy occurred while Starla and John were vacationing in the Caribbean. The Cassanis rushed home to Reno, Nev. and were able to spend a few days with Colby in a pediatric intensive care unit before he died. The couple decided to donate Colby’s organs after a physician came to them and asked them if they would consider such a difficult request. 

Starla Cassani said the physician who asked them about donating Colby’s organs was courageous, since organ donation wasn’t as common in 1993 as it is today. Many healthcare providers didn’t know how to bring up the delicate subject. Today, most states have designated requestors who are trained to talk to families about organ donation during a crisis, she said.

Susan Stuart, RN, President and CEO of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), Starla Cassani, and John Cassani, DO, founders of the Colby Foundation, spoke to LECOM medical students about organ and tissue donation.

“In the midst of my worst nightmare, I was given some hope,” Starla Cassani told the students. “I was given a little bit of control.” The decision to donate Colby's organs gave the Cassanis some comfort. In their time of grief, they wanted to help others. “Colby was a hero. He got to save three people’s lives.”

Colby’s liver went to a two-year-old girl in Sacramento, Calif., his kidneys were donated to a 27-year-old man from Pittsburgh, Pa., and his heart was transplanted into a five-month old boy named Brayden from Grand Junction, Colo. The Cassanis met Brayden when he was three years old, and have visited with him and his family on many occasions since then. 

LECOM students were touched by the Cassanis’ story and say it put a personal touch on the topic of organ donation. “As soon as she started speaking, the entire lecture hall went silent. We were just drawn to her story,” said second-year medical student Tracy Espiritu. “She gave us another viewpoint for us to understand what our patients and their families may be going through.”

LECOM students also heard from Susan Stuart, R.N., President and C.E.O. of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE), and Edward Faber, D.O., LECOM Class of 2003. Dr. Faber performs bone marrow transplants for cancer patients at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., where he also serves as an assistant professor of oncology and hematology.

Edward Faber, DO, a member of the LECOM Class of 2003, talked to LECOM medical students about bone marrow transplants and how they can help cancer patients.

“The students will be involved with transplant patients at some point in their medical careers,” Dr. Faber said. “A lot of times when I see patients for an initial evaluation, the patients will go back and schedule an appointment with their primary care doctor and ask them for their opinion.” Dr. Faber said he always calls a patient’s family physician, in addition to their oncologist when he’s considering bone marrow transplants, which involves infusing stem cells into bone marrow.

Compassion is also something the Cassanis hope that students will remember from their presentation. Starla Cassani said the liver transplant surgeon took the time to talk to the Cassanis and respond to their concerns, which put them at ease. “That little bit of compassion went so far and that’s what physicians need to know,” Starla Cassani said. ”That bedside manner. A little bit of compassion. It makes a world of difference. It can change someone’s life.”

The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and LECOM School of Pharmacy offer innovative and affordable education in osteopathic medicine and pharmacy. From campuses in Erie, Pennsylvania, Greensburg, Pennsylvania and Bradenton, Florida, LECOM provides student-centered pathways to prepare the next generation of healthcare professionals. Prepare yourself for medicine as your life’s profession.



March 18, 2011
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