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Vero radiologist celebrates quarter of a century as organ recipient

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of April 28, 2022)
Photo of Dr. John Hoffmann.

Dr. John Hoffmann, a radiologist at Vero Radiology Associates, was in college a quarter of a century ago when he was added to the long list of people in need of a new liver.

“I was born with an enlarged liver and abnormal liver enzymes. I was followed for a few months until things normalized. Then when I was 13, undergoing an entrance physical for high school, it was noted my liver enzymes were elevated,” Hoffmann said. Eight years later, after countless tests and procedures, Hoffmann’s doctors decided a transplant was his only option.

“I was on the transplant list for about three months, which is a really short time. Some people can wait up to five years, or longer,” he said.

Eighty-five percent of the people on the transplant list are waiting for a kidney, while 11 percent are waiting for a liver. Matching liver donors with recipients, Hoffmann said, is a matter of body size and blood type.

When doctors determined Hoffmann needed a transplant at 21 years old in 1996, split-liver directed transplants from living donors such as a close relative were only experimental, and they still remain rare and mostly benefit children whose bodies can’t always accept a whole adult donor liver.

Hoffmann’s condition worsened on a trip to Florida with his parents and that factor moved him near the top of the waiting list for a liver. On Dec. 21, 1996, he received his new liver at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he spent 10 days recovering, and another two weeks being observed as an outpatient.

“I had a couple of episodes of rejection after my surgery, but my new liver’s excellent function took over in mid-February of 1997 and it has been that way ever since,” Hoffmann said.

Since then, he got married, graduated from medical school and became a father. In 2011, Hoffman completed a fellowship in diagnostic radiology at Indiana University Medical Center, one of the hospitals where he’d been treated 15 years earlier, before his liver transplant. “Since the transplant, I have been extremely fortunate and blessed,” he said.

Though he’s not directly involved in recovering or transplanting donated organs and tissues in his daily practice as a radiologist in Vero Beach, Hoffmann has crossed paths with some of the many patients who wait by the phone for that all-important call that it’s their turn to receive a life-transforming gift.

“During my residency and fellowship training, I evaluated pre-and post-transplant patients’ radiology/imaging studies, and during my residency in Louisville and Cincinnati I was active in volunteering at the local organ donation centers in those cities,” Hoffmann said.

At any given moment, more than 116,000 people across the United States are awaiting an organ transplant, according to April 2022 numbers published by the United Network for Organ Sharing or UNOS. Of the people currently waiting, more than 5,200 live in Florida.

One organ donor can save up to eight lives, and can help restore health to up to 75 people with other tissue donations. There is no age limit to becoming an organ donor. One third of registered donors are age 50 and older, 7 percent are age 65 and older, and Hoffmann said he’s known of an organ donor that was 95 years old, whose recipient was 74 years old.

People of racial and ethnic minorities are especially encouraged to register, as 60 percent of people waiting on the transplant list are minorities. Surprisingly, even COVID-19 positive patients who die may be eligible to donate certain organs and tissues.

In 2021, nearly 2,800 Floridians received an organ transplant, and 230 people in the 10 counties of Central Florida passed on their organs to grateful recipients. But the statistics are not all happy ones. Every nine minutes, a new person is added to the national organ transplant waiting list, so the demand is always overwhelming.

Every day, an average of 20 people die while waiting for an organ transplant. In 2020, more than 6,100 Americans died while on the national transplant waiting list. Most of those 20 people who die each day while waiting for organ transplants are preventable deaths, but the challenge is to encourage more people to register as organ donors.

Since Hoffmann received a donated liver 26 years ago, he and his family have devoted much time and financial resources to raising awareness about the tremendous power organ donors have to save and extend lives. Since April is Organ Donor Awareness Month, Hoffmann hopes his story might open a mind or a heart to consider becoming an organ donor.

“After my mother’s passing in 2017, an endowment fund was established in her name at the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates office in Louisville. The donor fund helps families in need supply life-saving medication for transplant recipients,” Hoffmann said.

The fund also helps educate healthcare workers in the field of organ transplantation.

“Interestingly enough since Mom’s donation, the number of organ donors in the state of Kentucky has nearly doubled,” Hoffmann said.

Experts in organ donor coordination say the number one reason why family members opt not to give consent for their loved ones’ organs and tissues to be donated is that they don’t know what the deceased person would have wanted in that situation.

“It’s important to start a conversation with your family about your decision to save lives,” said Janna Aboodi, spokesperson for Our Legacy Florida, the agency tasked with working with organ donors across the Central Florida region, which includes Indian River County.

Aboodi and Hoffmann both encouraged local residents to educate themselves, and to commit to being a life-saving organ donor online at, or in-person at the Indian River County Tax Collector’s Office. Registered organ donors get a red heart on their Florida Driver Licenses or state ID cards. Parents can register their minor children as well.

Another frequent objection to signing on as an organ donor, Hoffmann cites, is that people are misinformed to think that doctors and other healthcare professionals won’t do everything in their power to save a patient’s life if they are an organ donor. In fact, the matter of whether or not a patient is a registered organ donor only arises after brain death is determined, or all hope of survival is lost.

In 2004, Hoffman met the family of the young man from Minnesota who made his liver transplant possible.

“My donor and I share the same first name. He died at 18 years of age in a traumatic snowmobile accident,” Hoffman said. “I think about him all the time. He was an excellent ice hockey player destined for a Division 1 NCAA hockey school. I pray for him and his family every day.”