If Richard Hasz and his wife hadn’t been friendly with the first-ever non-nurse hired by the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, he may have never had the opportunity to help save thousands of lives. It was 1989, and Hasz was living in Washington, D.C., working as a researcher for the National Institutes of Health. When his friend took the new job, he had a suggestion for Hasz: “You should come work here.”
Hasz was considering working in the field. After majoring in biology at Penn State University, he’d earned a master’s degree in forensic science from George Washington University. “I’ll give it a shot,” he told his friend.
To say the decision worked out for Hasz would be an understatement. In early January, he took over as president and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program, which has served eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware for 48 years. The Chester Springs resident joined in 1993 and has since played a key role in helping them coordinate more organs for transplant than any other of the nation’s 57 procurement organizations—doing so for 14 straight years.
Hasz spent the past 22 years as Gift of Life’s vice president of clinical services. He’s been instrumental in building a network of physicians and other medical professionals, donor families and hospital administrators to devise a mechanism capable of providing needy people with life-saving transplants. Along the way, he’s integrated new techniques, research advancements and other medical technologies to increase the pool of available organs and those eligible to receive them. Such a symbiotic relationship can produce myriad emotions. But the end result is often miraculous. “I think the reason I’ve stayed with Gift of Life is the realization that you can make an immediate impact on someone’s life,” says Hasz. “It’s a twofold process. You help shepherd a family that just lost a loved one through a very diﬃcult time, while providing them the opportunity to donate that can ease some of the pain. To help rewrite the ending for their loved ones is something that’s very powerful. There have been a lot of long nights and diﬃcult circumstances, but when you have a night where you feel you’ve made a difference, that motivates you.”
Gift of Life has coordinated more than 58,000 transplants since 1974. “That’s the most of anywhere in the world,” says former president and CEO Howard Nathan.
In addition, the organization has arranged for more than 2 million tissue donations. “One tissue donor can benefit as many as 75 people,” Nathan says.
In 2021, the program registered 705 organ donors, the largest number in U.S. history, leading to 1,732 transplants—tops among the 57 organ procurement programs nationally. What began as a concern with 10 people now has almost 300 employees. And while Nathan has played a substantial role in that growth, he believes Hasz is positioned well to move the organization forward. “If you need to get something done, you just ask him, and things get done quickly,” Nathan says.
Nathan met Hasz for the first time at a conference in 1992. When Nathan learned that he’d grown up in Hershey, he wondered whether Hasz had thought about moving home. “My wife [Linda] and I had just had our first child, and we were looking to get back,” Hasz says.
Within six months, Hasz was working in State College as a satellite coordinator. That was easy. Getting Hasz installed as Nathan’s successor wasn’t as simple. “When you’re working with a board of directors in a nonprofit, you have to answer to them,” Nathan says.
The whole process took 18 months and nearly 20 interviews from the time the 68-year-old Nathan started until the board gave their approval. “I had to make sure the board understood [Hasz] was the best leader in the country—and if I was going to step down, he was the guy to succeed me,” says Nathan. “The board wanted to conduct a search. I said they could do that, but they would come to the same result, and they might alienate Rick.”
Once he joined Gift of Life in January 1993, Hasz moved quickly forward. By 1999, he was its first vice president. During his time in that position. he became president of the Transplant Foundation and led the Gift of Life Institute, which trains donation and transplantation professionals. He also directed the Gift of Life family home.
Most importantly, Hasz helped the organization grow, modernize and develop even stronger ties with hospitals in the region. He was part of the effort that pushed the state to create a computerized bank of people who volunteer for organ donation on their driver’s license renewal forms. He’s also worked with doctors and researchers at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to develop therapies that allow the organs of those who’ve had hepatitis C to become transplantable.
For a while, 10–12 percent of donors had hepatitis C, mostly because they’d been drug users. “The organs weren’t damaged, because they were coming from younger donors—but they had the virus within the tissues,” Hasz says. “When the organs were transplanted, the virus was transmitted. But if you can cure hepatitis C—which you can with new antiviral drugs—it’s better than wasting an organ.”
Gift of Life continues to partner with researchers in their efforts to make organs more easily acceptable by recipients. But the real work is in coordinating donations, building a stronger network of those willing to donate and continuing to work with families to help them through diﬃcult times. Hasz is encouraged by the mid-January transplant of a genetically modified pig heart into a human in Baltimore. But he also understands that won’t become the norm for many years—if ever.
Moving forward, Hasz wants to increase the partnerships with area hospitals and other transplant oﬃcials. This year’s record-setting numbers were great, but there’s always more work to do. “We want to focus on the best practices, like how to talk to families and how to put systems in place,” he says.