One of my Facebook memories today was about the notification our family received after my sister donated her organs. She was that unicorn among donors—a young, healthy person who was taken off life support due to brain death, but not organ damage. Because of her blood type, she was considered a universal donor.
Once we knew her spirit was gone and only her body remained, our family made the decision to donate her organs. Her dying was planned accordingly. My mother, sisters, her daughter and I accompanied her from the ICU to the surgical ward. Her life support was removed, and we stood by her bed, telling her how much we loved her. It didn’t take long for her vital signs to stop; it was obvious what made Becci my sister was long gone.
Then, she was moved into the OR while we walked out of the hospital, bowed by grief.
About a month later, we got the official notification from Carolina Donor Services. Her lungs were transplanted to a male in his forties; her left kidney went to a female in her sixties and her right kidney went to a female in her fifties who has children and grandchildren. Her eyes, her ligaments, and other tissues were all donated. In all, she helped over 50 people.
Knowing that didn’t make her loss any easier to bear. But it is comforting to know that her death meant life for so many others. People are alive, or have a better quality of life, because my sister was an organ donor.
Charlie was an organ donor, too. He was too young to make that choice, so we did it for him. But I know he would have wanted to do it. He would have thought it was pretty cool, and asked all about how it worked. Because his corneas were donated, he would have wondered if it meant he could see out of the recipient’s eyes. That’s just the way his mind worked.
Because sometimes you get back from the universe what you put into it, last year, our family benefited from organ donation. It’s a humbling experience when you realize that someone you love is alive and healthy because of someone’s else’s death, and that family’s sorrow. It’s a sorrow we know well, but knowing that loss has made us appreciate the gift that was given even more.
Tomorrow will be one year and two months since we lost my Charlie. I opened one of the four boxes I have left—the one with everything related to his funeral—and reread the letter the American Tissue Services Foundation sent us. It says: “We hope that you will be comforted knowing that the gift of heart valves is one of the most precious any child can give to another. The gift of heart valves saves lives and improves the quality of life for infants and children born with congenital heart defects or heart damage caused by infection. This generous act not only transforms the lives of recipients, it touches the lives of all who love them and shares a legacy of the life you treasure.”
The Lion’s Eye Bank of Wisconsin also sent us a letter, which reads, “To see beyond one’s grief in hopes of helping another is a tremendous act of generosity and true compassion. Because of this compassion, a second chance for sight has been given to a woman in Alameda, California and someone in New York City, who are in need of corneal transplants. The restoration of sight can change a life forever, as Charlie’s precious gift has done.”
When I first got those letters, all I could think is how I hated that we had had to make that gift, and how I resented the thanks that just reminded me of how much we lost. Now, re-reading these letters makes looking at the envelope filed right next to them—the one that contains his death certificate—a little bit easier. I still would give anything to have my Charlie back, but knowing that other children are alive because of him, and other parents don’t have to feel this same grief, does help a little, as does knowing that two people are looking at the world through his eyes.
I only wish he could have passed on the way he saw the world, and how much he loved being in it.
The beautiful tear drop sent by the Lion’s Eye Bank of Wisconsin, along with a memorial card from the American Services Tissue Foundation. It took me a long time to take them out of their box, but now they are on my shelf, next to a beautiful tribute sent by my sister, where I can see them. Please consider registering as an organ and tissue donor.