Samuel J. Heyman Service To America Medals
2005 Finalist
Citizen Services


Dennis Wagner

Director, Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative
Health Resources and Services Administration, Division of Transplantation
Department of Health and Human Services
Rockville, Maryland


Developed and conducted an initiative that has generated rapid increases in organ donation in the U.S., already saving or enhancing 1,400 additional lives in 2004.


Developed and conducted an initiative that has generated rapid increases in organ donation in the U.S., already saving or enhancing 1,400 additional lives in 2004.

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More than 88,000 Americans are currently waiting for organ transplants that could save their lives. About 17 of these people die every day because an organ is not available. Lives are literally hanging in the balance. Dennis Wagner and the Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative are making sure that for hundreds of additional Americans each year, the scales are tipping in favor of life.

In 2003, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that his Department would be initiating a full-court press to systematically replicate known best practices to increase organ donation, and the Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative was born. Dennis Wagner would head this initiative along with Virginia McBride, Renee Dupee, Donald Coleman and Jade Purdue, plus three key consulting partners, Frank Zampiello, Helen Bottenfield and John Scanlon.

In its first four months, the Collaborative Leadership Team designed an aggressive program of regular working sessions, transparent reporting, technical assistance and action. An integral part of this effort was getting buy-in from key stakeholders. The team succeeded in getting more than 50 organ procurement organizations and 226 of the nation’s largest hospitals to partner with the collaborative. In September 2003, the team convened its first working session, and over 450 people participated. They have held five more working sessions since then which now involve nearly 1,500 participants and are satellite broadcast to hospitals across the country.

When it comes to measuring the impact of these efforts, the numbers speak for themselves. In 2004, the number of transplants from deceased organ donors increased 10.8 percent, an unprecedented spike. This is by far the largest one-year increase ever and far surpasses the 2.9 percent rate of annual growth that was realized in the preceding decade. Those percentages represent 1,400 additional transplants that were performed last year. That’s more than 100 additional transplants per month – transplants that save the lives of our family members, friends and co-workers throughout the nation. These numbers are growing bigger and bigger every month. Through the first four months of 2005, the number of donors is already running significantly ahead of last year’s record pace.

Due to the success of the collaborative, HHS is now planning to use the same approach to raise the average number of organs recovered and transplanted from each donor. It is estimated that this new initiative, when coupled with the continued momentum of the current Collaborative, could double the number of transplants annually, saving or enhancing thousands more lives each year.

The original energy for this effort came from former Secretary Thompson, but this incredible team was the key to implementing it. Co-workers describe team members as “a well-oiled, high-energy machine” and the heart of its success. One of the collaborative’s private sector partners who had a somewhat skeptical view of government went so far as to say, “Dennis Wagner and his team have changed my perception of government. Working with them has been the most profound experience of my entire career.”

As successful as it has been, there is reason to believe that we have only scratched the surface of the collaborative’s potential. It has created a national learning community with hospitals sharing best practices directly with one another. And the pace of experimentation, change and improvement in the area of organ donation is light-years ahead of where it was just 20 months ago. The faster these advancements are made, the sooner many of those 88,000 people in need of an organ can stop waiting. It’s uncertain exactly how many people will receive these life-saving organ transplants. But thanks to the Collaborative Leadership Team, we can say with certainty that thousands more people will get life saving and life enhancing transplants into the future.


Honoree Details

Dennis Wagner

Director, Organ Donation Breakthrough Collaborative
Health Resources and Services Administration, Division of Transplantation
Department of Health and Human Services
Rockville, Maryland


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