Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 26, 2013

Giving the gift of life

— — Jocelyn made a few good and bad choices in her life. And, let me blunt, she made one really stupid decision. But she also made at least one brilliant choice. Twice, in fact.

Jocelyn marked organ donor on both her North Carolina driver’s learning permit and her provisional driver’s license. I remember there was little discussion about it as she was filling out the first set of paperwork for the permit at 15 years of age. And there was no discussion the day she was happily, finally, getting her driver’s license only a couple of months before she turned 17. She just marked it matter-of-factly and the red heart icon appeared next to her beautiful face when the license arrived in the mail.

It was simply understood in our home. If something horrible happened, we didn’t need this body and the accompanying accessories. We should leave them for someone who did. We could save lives.

When we faced the terrible fact the day after Jocelyn attempted suicide and a machine was breathing for her — the fact that her brain was no longer living and we had to let her go — the very first thing my husband said to the medical team was that we wanted something good to come out of it. We wanted to donate her organs and give life to others who, unlike her, were fighting to stay here.

I can’t explain the incomprehensible mix of heartache and honor that choice provided. I can’t explain the wrenching loss our family felt, except to say that it was a humble privilege to provide hope and joy to a crowded handful of other families. Jocelyn saved other parents, siblings and children from losing a loved one.

April is National Donate Life Month. In honor of Jocelyn and others who donated organs in the last year, I’m asking everyone to think about this if they haven’t already. I’m asking parents to be role models, and to discuss it with their kids. I’m asking teens to mark their licenses so that little red heart shows that they are a donor. I’m asking everyone, even those who find the idea appalling, to reconsider how you can impact dozens of other people when your time here is done.

Nearly 120,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for an organ, including approximately 1,760 children. In comparison, just over 28,000 organ transplants were performed in 2011. Approximately 18 people die every day without a life-saving transplant.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, one person donating organs can save or improve as many as 50 lives. It’s especially important to consider organ donation if you belong to an ethnic minority because, according to the Mayo Clinic, “minorities including African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Hispanics are more likely than whites to have certain chronic conditions that affect the kidney, heart, lung, pancreas and liver. Certain blood types are more prevalent in ethnic minority populations. Because matching blood type is necessary for transplants, the need for minority donor organs is especially high.”

The afternoon of Jocelyn’s operation, the lead nurse on the surgical team approached me in the hallway and looked into my soul with her big blue eyes. “I want you to know that I will treat your child like she is my child,” she said. “I treat every person like they are a member of my own family.” Everyone from the doctors, to the nurses, to the people who handle the paperwork at LifeShare of the Carolinas, treated us with great tenderness and respect. They treat you not with pity but with benevolence, as if you are bequeathing a priceless gift — because you are.

We had a chance to say good-bye with Jocelyn in the operating room and she left us peacefully. It was clear to me in that moment that she didn’t need the shell she left behind. She didn’t need her liver or kidneys. But there were other people waiting who did. And we knew how grateful their families would be to have potentially 20 more years with them.

“It is very hard to put into words what your family has done for us,” wrote the man who received Jocelyn’s liver. “You have given the greatest gift of life to us. Your loved one will never be forgotten by us.”

“I pray for your family every day for blessing me and I thank you for being who you are — for that kind spirit,” wrote one of the kidney recipients. “If it hadn’t been for your family, I would probably still be on the waiting list for a transplant.”

I haven’t yet responded to these kind letters, but I look forward to one day telling them about who Jocelyn is, about the good and the bad, and about the stupid choice and the brilliant one that saved their lives. And I will tell them that I truly believe the pain and loss of death doesn’t need to overshadow the potential for life-saving joy.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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