Advance with MUSC Health

Meet a Heroic Champion of Organ Donation Advocacy

Advance With MUSC Health
October 06, 2023
Zachary Sutton holding medal in bicycle gear.

Zachary Sutton’s devotion to organ donorship is epic

Let’s be clear: This story is not about Zachary Sutton. He’d be the first to agree that the limelight makes him uncomfortable.

It is, however, about his dedication to raising awareness of the need for organ donors and the difference their lifesaving gift can make for transplant patients and their families. He doesn’t want accolades or ’atta-boys. Instead, he wants people to heed his message and consider registering to be an organ donor or becoming a living donor to someone in need.

“Most people don’t think about organ donation until someone they know or love needs an organ transplant,” says Sutton, 43, a physician assistant at the MUSC Health Transplant Outreach Clinic in Greenville. “I want to make everyone aware of the need and show potential donors that not only will their life go on, but also that they can lead a normal life – have kids and a family – and accomplish epic things.”

He's not crazy…he’s dedicated

As an organ donor and someone who works daily with pre- and post -transplant patients, Sutton leads by example. He has walked, run and pedaled on streets, highways and mountain trails, raising money for various organ donor foundations.

And as for “epic,” he’s earned his chops.

In August, Sutton completed the 2023 Leadville Trail 100 MTB race in Leadville, Colo., considered the longest, hardest single-day mountain bike race in the United States. The 100-mile trail begins above 10,000 ft. and climbs to 12,000.

“Call me crazy … but I’ve had my eye on that race for most of my life,” says Sutton, who rode on behalf of the Chris Klug Foundation (CKF), a nonprofit that educates people on the importance of organ, eye and tissue donation. A liver transplant and champion snowboarder, Klug earned a bronze medal for snowboarding in the 2002 Olympics – 18 months after receiving a liver transplant. He had been on the waitlist for six years.

Not only did Sutton complete the grueling race with 20 minutes to spare in the 12-hour competition, but he also raised $4,500.00 and earned a “finisher” belt buckle.

Zachary Sutton crossing finish line on a bicycle

Sutton says teamwork and a commitment to his cause fueled him onward and upward, despite “hitting the wall” at mile 82.

“By mile 82 I had doubts; I was worn down and 14 minutes behind, but I didn’t want to let my team down,” he says. “I saw Chris Kluge fly past me, and then I saw all the members of my team ahead of me. I thought of them, my wife, Andrea and my seven-year-old daughter, Anna-Elizabeth, my parents and everyone who had helped me raise funds. I just put my head down and vowed to get to that finish line.”

That moment wasn’t the first time Sutton had summoned his fighting spirit.

The stories behind Sutton’s dedication

He began mountain biking in 1996 and began participating in triathlons sponsored by Donate Life in 2005 while a graduate student at Clemson University. A series of incidents raised his awareness of organ donorship, but the most significant was the death in 2002 of his grandmother, who was on dialysis because of kidney failure.

“She died on the day of my graduation from Clemson,” he says. “Her death strengthened my resolve to become a donor.”

Fast forward to 2008, when Sutton was training at MUSC to become a physician’s assistant.

“I went to shadow a kidney transplant. That day, I told the transplant team, ‘I’m gonna donate.’ A few months later, in December, right after my last exam, I donated my left kidney.”

Sutton was 28. The recipient was 33, the same age as Sutton’s brother.

“I got to meet him,” Sutton says. “He was awesome. He had played football but couldn’t go to college because he had uncontrollable blood pressure that damaged his kidneys, and he was on dialysis.

The donation profoundly impacted Sutton negatively and, ultimately, positively. For months after his donation, Sutton endured the “imposter syndrome” and withdrew from his advocacy.

“People would tell me how great I was to donate my kidney, and I was being asked to speak at events. I didn’t want to do things like that. I felt uncomfortable, and I knew there were people with far better stories. It was tough, and I just felt like I didn’t fit.”

Sutton’s attitude later changed after he learned that his kidney recipient had died of heart failure after the kidney failed.

“Learning what had happened to him drove me to give voice again to the need for organ donors. I grew up a little bit, and I realized that it’s not about me,” Sutton says. “He is the reason why I have pursued what I have pursued.”

For Sutton, who will earn his doctorate in health administration from MUSC in December, there’s no letting up in that pursuit.

“I work in transplant day in and day out, and I meet living donors who are all scared. They want to know my story – to know how I’m doing, and I want to share my story if it encourages them to donate an organ or gives them peace of mind.

“If not me, then who will be that voice?”

MUSC Health’s Living Donor Program is located on the MUSC campus at 125 Doughty Street, Suite 680, Charleston, SC 29403. To learn more about organ donation, call 843-792-5097.