Infused with compassion by one of his mother’s bedrock principles, Howard Nathan, one of the founders of the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance and its longest-serving board member, is a firm believer that every person has the power to make the world a better place. And, for 43 years his life and work have been about doing that by giving people second chances through organ donation.
Nathan has been President and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program in Philadelphia since 1984, coordinating more than 53,000 organ transplants and approximately 2 million tissue transplants in its 46+ year history. He is the longest-serving CEO of any OPO in the U.S. and has mentored many other OPO leaders.
He served as a faculty member in the influential Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative from 2003-2006, which was tasked by the Department of Health and Human Services to identify ways to increase organ donation and transplantation. “The idea was to be bold about your goals. The expectation was that we all were going to make bold offers and bold requests to increase organ donation.”
When the Breakthrough Collaborative initiatives ended, Nathan and other involved leaders established the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance (The Alliance). He provided The Alliance with an administrative home at the Gift of Life Institute in its early years. “We started The Alliance to make sure that all the different aspects of improvement continued and we didn’t lose momentum in the work to increase organ donations,” he says.
“I felt that it was important to continue the dialogue because of the success that had happened. It was a dialogue that went beyond OPOs as it included all the stakeholders involved in the donation process including donor hospitals and transplant centers. And what that did was allow us to expand donation not just through public education, but through all these professional education means as well which is a tradition The Alliance has continued.”
His career in organ donation began in 1978 when he says five transplant surgeons, “saw something in me that I didn’t even know about myself,” and hired him to become a transplant coordinator at Delaware Valley Transplant Program (DVTP), an organization that would eventually become the Gift of Life Donor Program.
“I was part of the early days of transplantation which is one of the biggest medical breakthroughs of our time,” he says. “I saw I could impact change now; this was real, this was my calling and I never looked back. That passion and urgency has never let up in 43 years and while grief and loss has always been near, so too has been the joy of knowing that lives that might have been lost were not because of the compassionate act of the gift of life.”
Nathan helped draft and advocated for Pennsylvania’s routine referral of all deaths organ donation law in 1994 which served as a model for national legislation. He’s published more than 400 scientific papers and abstracts on organ and tissue donation and has traveled to more than 30 countries to share best practices. He has served as president of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO), Donate Life America, the International Society for Organ Donation and Procurement, and served three terms on the UNOS board of directors and also served as treasurer. Nathan received an appointment from the Secretary of Health and Human Services to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Organ Transplantation, an expert panel that advises the Secretary on all aspects of organ procurement, allocation, and transplantation.
His most recent honor came in the form of an honorary doctorate of humane letters from his alma mater, Juniata College at their 143rd Commencement in 2021, where he told graduates and their families, “Celebrate the road ahead, confront your ‘no’s’ and be bold with your actions.” He was introduced by 17-year-old liver transplant recipient Onyi Kenine, whose life-saving liver transplant was coordinated by Gift of Life in 2005 when she was 10 months old. “It’s primarily because of Howard’s motivation that I’m up here telling my story today as a donor-recipient,” said Kenine. She called Nathan ‘one of the most influential voices in the world for organ donation and transplantation.’
Nathan grew up in Johnstown, PA and lives with Liz, his wife, and Logan, his beloved dog, in Devon, PA.