'It was the most selfless decision': Organ donations save record number of lives for 12th year in a row

In the U.S. last year, doctors performed more than 42,800 organ transplants. But there are still over 100,000 people waiting for lifesaving donations.

Keegan Johnson, sitting in a car, smiles for a selfie.
Keegan Johnson, 17, takes one of his “famous selfies,” two months before he died of a sinus infection.

An increasing number of people in the United States are choosing to donate their organs once they die, with the nation surpassing its 1 millionth transplant in 2022 — higher than any other country.

Last year, doctors performed more than 42,800 organ transplants. Total kidney transplants in particular exceeded 25,000 for the first year ever, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the federally designated nonprofit serving as the nation’s transplant system.

UNOS said more than 14,000 people who died signed up to become organ donors in 2022, making it the 12th consecutive year that a record amount of people donated. Still, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for lifesaving organ donations. Advancing technology and the growing number of donors are helping close the wide gap.

In upstate South Carolina, near the Roebuck area, Allison Johnson Miller has become a strong voice for organ donation, inspired by her son, Keegan Johnson.

A sign on a Prius says: Donate Life.
A logo on a passenger vehicle for Donate for Life organ donation, San Francisco, in 2020. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

“Keegan is the oldest of our three boys. He’s 17, energetic, the healthiest three-sport athlete. He played football, baseball and basketball,” Johnson Miller told Yahoo News. “I tell people he was born with a ball in his hands.”

In early 2020, Keegan’s life was flipped upside down. The teenager, who was always healthy, fell ill.

“Then Sunday morning, Feb. 2, at 6:45, Keegan suffered a stroke right in front of me. He lost complete mobility of his left side,” she explained, adding that he was rushed to the hospital. “They ran lots of tests, came back that he had an infection on his brain and that he had to be rushed into emergency surgery. And it was, we were told, say your ‘I love you,’ say your goodbyes, we have to go now.”

“And Feb. 5, Wednesday morning at 10 a.m., he was pronounced brain dead. So very fast. It was a misdiagnosis of a sinus infection that mistakenly attacked his brain and turned into a rare form of bacterial meningitis.”

Life-changing decision

Keegan lost his life but, before his death, made a decision that could potentially save others.

“Four months to the day before he passed away, he checked the box at our local DMV in Spartanburg, and when they asked him [if he wanted to be an organ donor], he looked at me … and I said, ‘It's your decision.’ He said, ‘Well, what do I need them for when I'm gone?’ And I'm like, ‘You're right.’ And so he checked it.”

Keegan Johnson, stands against a brick wall, smiling as he holds his driver's license.
On Oct. 5, 2019, Keegan holds his license at the Southport Road/295 Spartanburg DMV, where he checked the box to become an organ donor. It was four months to the day before he died. (Allison Johnson Miller)

His thoughtful decision to check the box that day saved the life of 42-year-old John Wilson.

Wilson was 17 — Keegan’s age — when he found out he had diabetes. Then, 22 years later, as a husband and father of two daughters, he found out he was at 30% kidney function and needed a transplant.

“On [Feb. 6, 2020], I heard that there may be some organs becoming available to me. They asked me to be at [the Medical University of South Carolina] in Charleston on the 7th at noon, and like 1:30 in the morning on the 8th is when I was wheeled into the OR,” Wilson told Yahoo News.

He received Keegan’s pancreas and one of his kidneys. While the process was difficult, he’s doing well three years later and remains grateful for Keegan’s gift.

John Wilson lies in a hospital bed checking his cellphone, with a gauze bandage on his arm hooking him up to a monitor.
John Wilson, 42, in February 2020, at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, prepares to receive a kidney and pancreas from Keegan. (Leslie Wilson, LWilson Photography)
Wilson lies in a hospital bed.
Wilson prepares to receive a kidney and pancreas from Keegan. (Leslie Wilson, LWilson Photography)
Wilson, wearing headphones, lifts up his arm to show the tattoo, which says: Thank You, Keegan, 2.5.2020.
Wilson shows his first and only tattoo, in honor of Keegan. (Yahoo News)

“I got a memorial tattoo for him this year. So I didn't even tell my mom. I just sent her a text. I was like, ‘Hey, Mom, don't be mad, I got a tattoo.’ Just watch the fireworks go off. I think Keegan might have done something like that,” Wilson said of his first and only tattoo.

The impact of becoming a donor

In total, Keegan saved four lives by donating his organs, including that of a high schooler like him, who received his liver on her 18th birthday. His mother said he also helped more than 100 others with his tissue, bones and valves.

Keegan joined hundreds of people who signed up to save lives in South Carolina. In 2022, according to We Are Sharing Hope SC, 230 donors saved more than 500 lives, an all-time record in the state.

The family and John Wilson, holding a large poster of Keegan, line up in a meadow for a photo shoot with a family dog.

David DeStefano, the president and CEO of We Are Sharing Hope SC, told Yahoo News that Johnson Miller “had the strength to be able to say yes to donation because she knew Keegan wanted that. So it spoke to who Keegan was, the type of individual he was, the type of giver he was, and I'm constantly amazed when I watch her speak and watch her tell Keegan’s story.”

We Are Sharing Hope SC is the lone government-approved organ donation system in the state. It shares organs with the sickest patients in a certain geographical region, typically within 250 miles, and often people in South Carolina, according to DeStefano.

“One organ donor can save up to eight people through this miraculous gift, and then tissue donation, cornea donation, gives people the gift of sight and tissue donation can help up to 75 people realize the tissue gift through one donation,” he said.

Being added to the national transplant waiting list

Anne Paschke, public relations manager of the United Network for Organ Sharing, said the organization compiles its organ donation statistics from transplant centers across the U.S., which individually enter patient data into their system.

The first transplant was back in 1954, and just last year, we surpassed 1 million organ transplants being performed in this country. Half of those were sent just since 2007,” Paschke told Yahoo News.

She explained that it’s important for those who need a transplant to know exactly what to do to be added to the waitlist.

“In order to be considered for an organ transplant, a patient in end-stage organ failure has to be evaluated by a transplant hospital. They will do medical and psychosocial evaluations and then determine if you're a good candidate for transplantation. If so, they will list you on the national waiting list. That's when they put your medical information into UNOS’s computer system.”

Paschke added that those who sign up for organ donation are encouraged to tell their loved ones of their decision. In Keegan's case, since he was 17 and a minor, his parents had the right to say no. After an organ donor turns 18, their family "cannot override the person's decision to donate their organs," according to the National Institute on Aging.

Keegan Johnson (wearing a shirt saying Dorman 26) and Nate Worthy (32), suited up with their football helmets and both touching their index fingers to their thumbs, are pictured at night.
Keegan, right, and his best friend, Nate Worthy, both 17-year-old juniors, pose in the fall of 2019 during football season at Dorman High School Cavalier Stadium. (Allison Johnson Miller)

“It was the most selfless decision he's ever made and the easiest decision that myself and his dad, my husband, made,” Johnson Miller said. “Lots of people say that had to be so hard, but honoring your child's basically last wish — easiest thing we did that week. Easiest thing. It was a blessing. A huge blessing.

“It makes me the proudest. I can talk about it forever.”

Johnson Miller and other family members became organ donors after Keegan’s death. She also founded the Keegan Johnson Memorial Scholarship, giving awards to student athletes in his name.