Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona Helps Firefighter Get a Second Chance at Life

Posted By on April 25, 2018

Gene McDaniel after surgery, with his wife, Holly.

By Karen Werner

Last April, Gene McDaniel, a retired Phoenix Fire Department captain and paramedic, was getting up to start his day. “I was as yellow as a banana,” he said. “It was liver failure.”

Although the 55 year old had never had a liver problem before then, by the next day he was on life support in the intensive care unit, with a ventilator and pacemaker. At one point, a doctor told his wife she had three hours to say her goodbyes.

Unfortunately, there were problems getting the necessary approvals for a liver transplant. That’s when Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (BCBSAZ) stepped in. “A call came from the the head of the fire union asking for help and explaining Gene’s predicament,” said Alton Washington, the past chair and current member of the BCBSAZ board of directors. “Without this badly needed transplant, he wouldn’t survive. He was down to mere hours.”

BCBSAZ convened an emergency meeting with internal and medical staff and worked with the City of Phoenix to overcome the obstacles. Approvals were granted and the surgery took place, saving McDaniel’s life.

That situation served as the spark for BCBSAZ to get those involved in the organ donation program to share information and broaden the base. “We have great needs in this community and wonderful organizations like the Donor Network,” Washington said. “The more we can share those resources, the more we can tap into other community resources.”

While transplantation surgeries are now standard and highly successful, the need for organ, cornea and tissue donation is still great. In Arizona, 2,100 men, women and children are waiting for life-saving organ transplants.

BCBSAZ is trying to get the word out about this dire need. It has placed ads promoting organ donation on fire trucks and is working with other employers. “The more you’re able to get the word out and share the story, people are really willing to be involved,” Washington said. “We can take the most horrible situation — the loss of a loved one — and memorialize our loved one by giving life and opportunity to someone else.”

Donor Network of Arizona is the state’s only federally designated, nonprofit 501(c)3 organ procurement organization. It is also a tissue recovery organization and Arizona’s only eye bank providing corneal tissue for transplantation. One organ and tissue donor can save and heal 50 lives.

“I’ve been an organ donor since I was 18, but never thought I would be on this side of the table,” McDaniel said. Yet one year after his life-changing surgery, McDaniel is alive and thriving. “My liver numbers are perfect. I’ve returned to about the 95th percentile of everything that I used to do,” he said.

McDaniel calls it is a miracle to have had his life returned because of a donor’s gift. He is savoring time with his wife and three children and helping to spread the word about organ donation. “When folks think about what is truly the greatest gift they could ever give, it’s to make that commitment to become an organ donor, because you’re making it to all these other folks, and to the world. Donors live on in that symbiotic relationship with the recipient,” McDaniel said.

April is National Donate Life Month, a time to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and celebrate those who have saved lives through the gift of donation. There are no health requirements or age limits — anyone can register to be a donor.

By registering today, you can give hope to more than 2,100 Arizonans on the organ transplant waiting list, including people like Gene McDaniel.

For information, visit

Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.