Ten years ago April 9 at 11 p.m. my mother called and said, “Brenda (my sister) has had a heart attack and she’s going to die. “You’re the closest one to Kentucky, so you need to get there before she dies.” You don’t forget calls like that. In shock, I drove to Bowling Green, asking the toll booth attendant for directions to the hospital. Little did I know that one shock would lead to another for years to come. Brenda didn’t die then, and for ten years, she fought a brave fight. She was in and out of the hospital this past year, many times very critical, but each time she fought back. She had been approved as a heart transplant candidate, but the latest heart episode had taken its toll on my 56-year-old sister. She struggled to awake from the sedation, to breathe on her own and regain her strength to stand, all pre-requisites for the transplant. That Saturday found her finally coherent, trying to communicate with sign language, and for a moment, there was hope. That Sunday, something went terribly wrong, resulting in her brain death. I drove the six hours to Chicago to say goodbye before they shut off the machines which were keeping Brenda’s heart beating and lungs breathing. We had learned so much on this journey of Brenda’s illness, but our greatest lesson was yet to come. Since she had no children, her husband relied on “the sisters” to guide him. A representative of the “Life Goes On” organ donation organization quietly asked us if we knew if Brenda had ever spoken of being an organ donor. I had never asked her, and she had never said. The decision, it seemed, was up to us, but how could we decide something so important without knowing for sure. Finally we agreed that since we had been willing to get someone else’s heart to keep Brenda alive, it seemed only fair that we be willing to share what Brenda no longer needed to keep someone else alive. Yes, we would donate Brenda’s organs, but little did we know what that would require of us. Three people needed to agree to the organ donation, but it was not a simple “Take what you can use.” With each organ, we had to say whether we allow harvesting for a transplant, as well as harvesting the organ for research if transplanting wasn’t an option. Research. Did we really want that? We accepted when we realized that as a science teacher for 20 years, Brenda understood the value of education. We sat around the conference table making decisions for our sister who lie in the room next door. It began easily enough. Heart? Yes, though it wouldn’t be suitable for transplant, of course since it failed her. Liver, okay. Lungs, okay. Kidneys, okay. Pancreas, okay. Intestines, yuck, but okay. We were not prepared for the next step. Several body tissues can also be transplanted. Unfortunately, my parents entered the room as we continued through the list of requests. Bones of the arm? We sat stunned. My father was visibly shaken. The bones can be extracted and replaced with forms so as to appear normal. The body is still able to be viewed at a funeral. My father shook his head no. Skin? Yes, apparently the large patch of skin on the back, as well as skin on the thighs can be used for burn victims. “The sisters” were inclined to agree since burn victims suffer terribly from their plight, but the blood rushed to Dad’s face as he continued to shake his head. “You can’t have her skin,” he declared. Corneas, tendons, veins, and bone marrow; it was just too much for Dad to accept. He could say goodbye to his daughter, but he could not bring himself to divide up her body, no matter who it might save in the end. So we gave what we could stand. Another part of organ donation we didn’t realize was the time involved in securing recipients and harvesting the organs. Nothing is removed that doesn’t have a place to go. Sometimes, the procedure can take up to 48 hours, during which the donor is, of course, kept alive on machines. For ten years, one of us had always tried to be with Brenda while she was hospitalized. It was our promise to her years ago; she would never be alone if at all possible. I was not about to break my promise now; she would not be alone at the end. Even though her brain was dead, she looked so alive that we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her alone those final hours. So, after the others said their goodbye and left, I stayed. I held her hand and talked to her through the night. I’m not sure what the doctors thought, nor do I care. This is what sisters do. At one point while they prepared her for the harvest procedure, I stepped back out to the waiting room. Even at 2 in the morning, the room was filled with people. Two patients had just received successful transplants; one a lung, one a heart. They were giddy at the prospect of new life for their loved ones, and for a moment, I was angry and jealous. What made them more deserving than Brenda? Why did they receive a heart when she had not? She was a good person and deserved more life. I walked from the room unable to control the emotions of the day. In time, I came to accept that though our journey had ended in sudden disappointment, Brenda’s gift would lead to happy reunions for other families whose loved one received the organs. She would be the cause of happiness for many people. So I went back in to her room and told her how proud I was of her. As for going through that agonizing decision again with the death of another family member, I told all of my siblings I would not decide again if someone got their skin, nor would I leave that decision to them at my death. Signing your driver’s license indicates your desire to be an organ donor, but it is not legally binding. Three family members would still need to agree to those wishes and specify which organs are used. Just recently, Illinois has created the website www.LifeGoesOn.com which allows you to legally declare your wishes to be an organ donor. That’s a start, but it still does not specifically note which organs and tissues you wish to donate. Do your family a favor. Sit down right now and prepare a document for your family to use to make those organ donation decisions in case you go before them. I did. Far as I’m concerned, I don’t need anything where I’m going. There’s a brand new body waiting… and hopefully it’s a knockout!
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