Much more than a sum of parts

Last July, David Drake, D.O.’83, acted on an idea that had him “hooked”: to voluntarily donate a kidney. His journey included Claire Cumbie-Drake, his wife of 28 years, and some coincidental DMU connections.

This is the second part of a two-part feature. Read part one.

DMU alumnus David Drake says he was “naively calm” while waiting with wife Claire Cumbie-Drake for the surgery that would extract his left kidney.
DMU alumnus David Drake says he was “naively calm” while waiting with wife Claire Cumbie-Drake for the surgery that would extract his left kidney.

THE DECISION: When David Drake, D.O.’83, started kicking around the idea of becoming a humanitarian kidney donor last year, it drew strong reactions – including some opposition – from many family members and friends. Not so from his wife, Claire Cumbie-Drake, J.D. She knows her spouse, who holds a master’s degree in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School and who’s participated in peace delegations to places such as Iran, Israel and Colombia.

“It seemed important to me to sit back and let him make the decision, to maintain a neutral position,” she says. “It was not that much out of character for him.”

That doesn’t mean she kept at a distance. An attorney with the Des Moines law firm of Harrison and Dietz-Kilen PLC, Cumbie-Drake was with her spouse through every step of his donation journey, including the seemingly countless meetings with the physicians, counselors and others connected to Des Moines’ Mercy Transplant Center. That robbed her and Drake, a psychiatrist and family consultant in solo private practice, of hours in the office.

“As the time drew closer for his surgery, I honestly felt sort of irritated,” she says. “The process wasn’t convenient.”

Nor was it encouraging. Transplant staff were as thorough in laying out the risks of organ donation as they were in evaluating Drake’s physical and psychological abilities to handle it. “Basically their job was to scare the bejesus out of me!” Drake wrote in The Des Moines Register in August. “Through it all, the surgeon was very clear that I could stop the process at any moment – even while on the surgical table and ready to undergo anesthesia.”

THE SURGEON: As a teenager growing up in Belgium, Johan Aerts and his father faced a terrible and tragic decision. His mother, while riding her bicycle home from a friend’s, had toppled over with a major brain aneurysm. In the hospital, her physician needed to know: Should we keep Mrs. Aerts on her breathing apparatus, even though she was medically brain-dead, and let her body slowly waste away? Or should she be released from life support so that her organs could be donated to those in need?

Aerts and his father chose the latter.

Fast-forward to his senior year of high school, when he participated in a foreign student exchange program. He ended up in Algona, IA, and loved it. He took classes at Iowa Lakes Community College to become an emergency medical technician. He graduated from Algona High School with a semester of college credit.

“When I had the opportunity to go on an ambulance, that was very intriguing and exciting,” says Aerts, D.O.’03, FACOS. “But when we’d drop people off at the emergency room, I’d wonder what happened to them.”

After a summer back in Belgium, he returned to Algona, trained as a paramedic and then earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Drake University. That and getting accepted at DMU were dreams come true.

“Going to a private university like Drake – that’s not real life; that was like the movies,” he says. “I faced huge challenges in getting accepted into medical school. I couldn’t get federal student loans. English was my fifth foreign language. But DMU saw something in me.”

DMU was where Aerts first crossed paths with Drake, then a member of the psychiatry/behavioral medicine faculty. They reconnected in the final hours of 2011 at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by mutual friend Jacqueline Stoken, D.O.’90, a West Des Moines physician. By that time, Aerts had completed five years of surgical training at Michigan State University and a two-year transplant fellowship – the nation’s first – at the University of Minnesota. He learned from David Sutherland, M.D., Ph.D., who’d performed the world’s first living-donor partial pancreas transplant in 1979.

“He’s considered the father of abdominal transplant. I was very fortunate to have trained there and to be representative of doctors of osteopathic medicine,” says Aerts, the first D.O. accepted into that fellowship.

He’s now one of two transplant surgeons at the Mercy Transplant Center, where he led the reopening of its pancreas transplant program. When he reflects on his life and career, he goes back to his vivid memories of his mother lying in the hospital and his family’s choice to donate her organs.

“That has come full circle,” he says. “Day in and day out, I breathe organ transplant. In my career, I made a choice – to make something good out of something bad.”

THE OUTCOME: Going into surgery on July 8, David Drake opted not to have a calming sedative offered by Justin Rosenow, D.O.’05, who practices with Medical Center Anesthesiologists PC. “I was naively calm,” Drake recalls. Just eight days after Aerts extracted his left kidney, he returned to his practice half-time.

“David is very healthy, very motivated and very stubborn,” says Claire Cumbie-Drake. “I’m not sure he heard, ‘You’ll probably be in pain, you will have to take pain medications and you’ll need to take time off work.’”

That painful patch in his recovery was tough on her, too. Like any loving spouse, she wanted to alleviate his discomfort. But the couple had no desire to throw themselves a pity party. “It gives me tremendous empathy for people giving care to chronic pain patients,” she says. “I think I was able to keep that in perspective, that David was on the mend.”

The biggest take-aways for the couple, other than his donated organ and the 15-pound weight loss Drake intends to maintain, have been the ways his choice “moved others,” he says. They include his kidney’s recipient, who was able to get off dialysis almost immediately, and the recipient’s wife, who tearfully thanked Cumbie-Drake when they met in the hospital waiting room.

“That made me realize what these folks had been living. Dialysis takes over your whole life,” she says.

When the couple shared their experiences in a DMU auditorium in December, Drake made clear that his decision to donate in no way was intended to encourage others to do so. “I would never do that,” he noted. “All of us can make contributions in our lives in so many ways. I want to encourage people to find ways they can find meaning in their own lives.”

In case you don’t want to take them with you

You don’t have to make a “live” organ donation, like David Drake did, to save a life. You can opt to do so after you leave this world. Here’s how:

  • Laws vary by state. Learn about the laws in your state by visiting the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Some states allow individuals to indicate their desire to donate on their driver’s license. In Iowa, for example, that “yes” gives your consent for transplantation of your organs, tissues and eyes.
  • Sign up via the donor registry in your state. These databases provide instant information on deceased patients and their intentions to donate. To identify your state’s donor registry, visit
  • Probably most important, inform your loved ones of your desire to donate, so they know to be supportive when the time comes.

The need for organs is significant. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the private, nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system by contract with the federal government, candidates waiting for organs exceed 123,800. While an average of nearly 80 people receive organ transplants daily, an average of 18 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t occur due to the shortage of donated organs.

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