Gifts of Life from Death

My nephew Jason was seriously injured in a skiing accident a number of years ago, which resulted in chronic pain and numerous back surgeries. He was prescribed pain medication, which, as we now know, has precipitated a national health care crisis. Still, we thought he could handle it and wean himself from the pills. One night the dreaded phone call came from my brother-in-law that Jason had overdosed and was rushed to the hospital. I immediately got on a plane and, when we arrived at the hospital, we found him on life support--his tall lean body still intact; his brain, dead.

As we stood around his bed trying to take it all in, we learned two things. First, that it was too late and there was nothing the doctors could do, and, second, that Jason was a registered organ donor. It was therefore critical that he continue to receive life support to keep his organs alive and healthy until those awaiting transplants could be contacted.

So, the hospital became our home. An interdisciplinary team of specialists was flown in, some to take over and coordinate medical procedures and some, as it turned out, to support the family. These support staff let us know they were available 24 hours a day for any question or need we had. They mediated between the nurses and us and communicated information and updates on procedures. They sat with us, offered refreshments, provided resources and prepared us for what was to come. Additionally, at our request, they arranged for an off-duty chaplain to meet with us in Jason’s room. We were given free rein to visit Jason in his tiny room--even if medical staff had to be cleared out--as well as access to a private room for when we wanted to be alone.

Then, after three days of waiting, it was time. We accepted locks of Jason’s hair, inked handprints and the fleece blankets that had covered him. Though surgeons were standing by, we were given ample time to be with Jason for the last time and allowed to follow as they wheeled him to the OR. As a family we had prepared a page-long description of Jason, describing as best we could his interests, values, talents, wittiness and aspirations. We were told that this tribute was read aloud in the OR to the doctors and nurses, who together observed a moment of silence before beginning surgery.

Perhaps there is something about sorrow that sensitizes us to compassion and acts of kindness. When I reflect on my nephew’s unexpected death and the heartbreak that we experienced, I think also of the competent, sensitive and caring individuals who recognized and honored his life and brought dignity to his death.

We were notified some days later that the transplants had been successful, that Jason’s organs had, in fact, given others another chance at life.


Joan comments: Nothing makes up for the death of a beloved, but how wonderful that out of this terrible time a number of other lives were greatly improved. And what a fine transplant team to take the time to offer his generous donation the respect it deserved. Thank you for sharing this lovely story, Susan. May it serve to inspire others to become registered organ donors and by so doing, imitate Jason. In most places it is easy to become a registered organ donor – in my state they just put a notice on my driver’s license. I have seen how lives can be transformed by the gift of another’s organs, and as a registered organ donor I hope when I die parts of my body will be of service to others. Dear Reader, are you a registered organ donor? Sign up today!