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Passionate Advocate for Donor Families, Kevin Cmunt, Champions Use of ‘Better Than Dialysis’ Kidneys

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Two years after stepping down as president and CEO of Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, J. Kevin Cmunt is busier than ever. He’s started an informal ‘Better than Dialysis’ group of experts who are working to advocate for more usage of recovered but not transplanted kidneys; sits on the board of the Illinois Transplant Fund (ITF), an organization he started in 2015 to ensure access to transplant services for patients in Illinois ineligible for subsidized healthcare; is a coach and faculty member for the End Stage Renal Disease Treatment Choices Learning Collaborative (ETCLC); and is serving on The Alliance National Innovation Leadership Council. Then there’s his ‘me’ time and ‘family’ time that are chockablock full of activities.

Cmunt says he stepped down from his CEO role in October 2020 at age 62 after working 60-hour weeks for 40 years because he wanted to do some other things in his life. Those other things include continuing to have an impact on organ donation and transplantation. “I can work on things that I’m passionate about,” says Cmunt.  “And I’m finding so many interesting opportunities.”

One of those opportunities combines his passion for donor families with advocacy for the use of organs recovered but not transplanted. He recently presented at The Alliance 2022 National Critical Issues Forum on, “What if We Had Too Many Organs? Actually, We Do!” which is available as a 16-minute video TAD Talk on The Alliance’s website.

In it, he suggests five policy changes and things that could be done to increase the use of donor kidneys. “It’s time for us to change the paradigm,” he says. “We have an obligation to our donors whose families say yes to donation.” He’s used that presentation in a meeting with the transplant team at the University of Wisconsin and hopes to visit with transplant programs in Texas.

Eighteen months ago, Cmunt met Marty Sellers, MD, Organ Recovery Surgeon at Tennessee Donor Services, who is on the board of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, and who is interested in increasing the use of recovered kidneys. Cmunt then reached out to other leaders in organ donation and transplantation and together they created the ‘Better than Dialysis Group,’ who met for the first time in February. “Our goal is to get some transplant programs to begin using what are now considered marginal kidneys.”

Honoring the Donor Families

His deeper passion for donor families launched when he became CEO of Gift of Hope in 2012.

“One of the things that I promised to do was to try to understand everybody’s job,” says Cmunt. “I started out by going to a funeral of an organ donor with one of our family services coordinators. As I met and got to know donor families, it became clear to me that as an organ procurement organization (I prefer to say organ donation organization) we work for donor families, and we have an obligation to fulfill the promise to honor their gift.”

Cmunt estimates that during his eight years at Gift of Hope he went to more than 100 funeral services for donor families. “What I saw was families all found comfort and peace in their loved one being an organ donor. There are the horrible things that happen in life and those are the people who become organ donors. Typically, these are very traumatic cases with lousy endings. And then donation happens, and we rewrite the end of the story and we give donor families hope and change their story. Using their incredible gift of donation to help people is our highest responsibility as a transplant community.”

Cmunt escorts a young boy during a donor family honor walk.

Me Time and Family Time

Cmunt and his wife, Marguerite, live in Glen Ellyn, IL and have three adult children. Their son lives in Chicago, one daughter lives in Pasadena, and their oldest daughter lives two blocks away. “She is the mom of my two grandkids, Kellen who is 4 and Margo who is 2. They’re a big part of my life. This morning I was taking them to preschool, and we played in the snow on the way. I take them to school three times a week, and I pretty much see them every day. That’s the family stuff that I now have time for.”

For his ‘me time,’ he plays ice hockey three times a week, plays some golf, is in a band, and has recently taken up the harmonica and guitar. He’s also a Chicago White Sox baseball fan.

Hard Working Upbringing

Cmunt was born and raised in the Chicago area, the youngest of three boys. When he was four, his parents moved to the western suburb of Bellwood, after a bullet came through the window of their city of Chicago flat. “My parents were of the Depression era/World War II generation,” says Cmunt. “My dad was a union printer for most of his life. He lost his job because of changes in the printing industry after we moved to Bellwood and took a job selling printing supplies. It turned out he was a natural salesman.” His father died suddenly at age 53 when Cmunt was 15. “We got through fine. My friends and my community were great.”

“My Dad had worked really hard, and my brothers all worked really hard. That was just what you did. You worked as much as you could because you wanted to do better. I think that’s how working so much started for me and carried throughout my life.”

Transition from Civil Engineer to Organ Donation Executive

“I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood and I didn’t know anybody who went to college,” says Cmunt.  “Somebody said, ‘Hey, you know, if you’re an engineer, you don’t have to take a language in college’ and since I had almost flunked Spanish in high school but was good at math and science, I decided to become a civil engineer. I got a great education at the University of Illinois.”

Cmunt spent the first five years of his career as an engineer where he designed bridges and foundations for buildings. He then moved into project management. About six months into a new job at American Ref-Fuel Company, his boss told him he ought to be in business development. “And it turned out that I was good at it,” says Cmunt. After a decade there as regional business manager and VP of marketing, he found himself at a crossroads. “The company was in Texas, and we were living in Chicago, and I was going to have to move if I wanted to continue to move up in the company and we didn’t want to move.”

A call from his high school best friend, Tommy, solved that problem. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m the new CEO of this tissue bank and I need a business guy. You should come work with me.’ I told him I didn’t know anything about medicine and tissue banking or any of that. And he said, ‘No, you’ll be great. You should come.’ Cmunt agreed to come for two years to help him out. That turned into a 12-year stint as Executive Vice President at AlloSource.

AlloSource is a joint venture of the OPOs in Chicago, Denver, and St. Louis and is where Cmunt met Jerry Anderson, who served as CEO of Gift of Hope in Chicago for 27 years from 1985-2012. Cmunt was encouraged by Anderson to apply for the CEO position, and he was appointed in 2012. “That gave me eight unbelievable years at Gift of Hope. It’s by far and away the coolest job anybody can ever have.”

Mentoring and Coaching

For the past year, Cmunt has worked with two mentees through The Alliance Mentorship Program, and he is also a mentor for the Gift of Life Institute’s Leadership Academy. For the past 18 months, he has coached two teams, one of donation and one of transplant professionals, who are part of the End Stage Renal Disease Treatment Choices Learning Collaborative, sponsored by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). He was recently promoted to be on the national faculty for the collaborative.

When all is said and done, Cmunt says his advocacy for increased usage of recovered but not transplanted kidneys comes down to one thing. “All of our donor families ask one thing of us: ‘Make something good happen with my loved one’s organs.’ We owe them our best effort to use those precious gifts.”

Cmunt’s desk is lined with reminders of the donor families he has been called to serve.

 

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