April is National Donate Life Month and Gift of Hope is celebrating it by sharing stories from organ, eye and tissue donation advocates from across Illinois and northwest Indiana.
Each day throughout April, the Gift of Hope Blog will share the donation story of a family that was affected by donation. We hope that these stories inspire you to say “Yes” to organ, eye and tissue donation and share your decision with others.
We all have moments in life that are frozen in time, giving us the uncanny ability to remember every facet in extreme detail. The smells. The sounds. The layout of a particular room.
July 27, 2012, is that day for me. I can tell you what I was wearing, what song played on the radio before I got out of my car, the exact order I had just picked up at Subway and that the sun was shining. I can also tell you how I was unable to explain to my husband that he was going the wrong way, about the woman who dropped to her knees in prayer after seeing us running through the hospital and the about closed door the chaplain opened to explain what had happened.
My dad, Paul, was always telling jokes, wanting nothing more than to make people laugh and go out of his way to help others. He loved the St. Louis Cardinals, animals, old westerns, random documentaries and all things Irish, Navy and Notre Dame. As the oldest child, I was given the title “Daddy’s Girl” at a young age. He fixed my computer, sent money in college and taught me that if it moves and it isn’t supposed to, duct tape it. And if it doesn’t move and it’s supposed to, WD-40 it.
Our thing was gardening. We planted a huge garden together every summer, not because our family needed that much, but because he would take the extras to friends, coworkers and food pantries, reminding us that people are hungry year-round, not just during the holidays. That silly, over-the-top Irishman was always giving.
On July 24, 2012, my father-in-law suffered a massive heart attack. Three days later, my father suffered a massive heart attack while driving. A passerby pulled him out of his vehicle and performed CPR. He was stented at the hospital. Both men underwent hypothermic therapy, a process to cool the body during a 24-hour period to preserve brain function after cardiac arrest. On August 1, my father-in-law went home. That same day, my dad passed away at age 50 due to brain trauma.
Because of the circumstances surrounding his brain injury, there was a two-day span between when we knew my dad wouldn’t be coming back to us and when he could be taken off ventilator support and his organs could be donated. All I remember thinking is how cheated I felt and how I didn’t want to wait the two days — going home knowing I had to come back again and do it all over seemed unbearable. Even as a registered organ and tissue donor myself, I didn’t want him to donate his. I just wanted him to wake up. I wanted my dad back, my future kids to meet their grandpa.
Skip ahead eight months to a still-grieving, but more rational Alicia. I tell people I now fully understand why laws exist to ensure that people’s wishes are carried through — because grief is a powerful, irrational thing. My dad was proud to be a registered organ and tissue donor, and he would have wanted nothing more than the chance to save and improve lives through his selfless gifts. This is why I wish we had thoroughly educated ourselves about the organ donation process and talked about it more as a family: It impacts everyone involved.
Now, being an Advocate for Hope for Gift of Hope is a way for me to carry on my dad’s memory in a way that impacts others positively. I know that he saved the lives of two other dads by giving them kidneys. I know he gave people the chance to see their loved ones again through the gift of his corneas. I know he’s helped burn victims through skin grafts. On average, 18 people die each day waiting for a transplant, yet one donor can save or enhance the lives of more than 25 people. My dad’s gifts, and those who continue living full lives because of them, make it the tiniest bit easier for me to deal with the loss of my daddy. I find peace knowing how many others get a second chance with their loved ones because of my loved one.
Before losing my dad, I was a registered organ and tissue donor, but 18-year-old me had no idea what that really meant. I knew I’d help others; I knew it was the right thing to do. But I had considered only the gift that transplant recipients receive, never the situations facing donors and their families. But I’m here to say that it’s a gift to be the daughter of an organ donor as well. Through the selfless act of my dad and so many others, families receive a second chance at life.
Do you know someone who has been touched by donation? More than 117,000 Americans are on the national waiting list, with more than 5,000 in Illinois alone. What does tomorrow hold for you? We’re all just one phone call away from being on our knees. It could be you. It could be a loved one. It could be a stranger. But saying “yes” to being an organ and tissue donor can save all of those lives and more.
If you’re a registered organ and tissue donor, I encourage you to educate yourself and your family further on this selfless decision you’ve made. If you’re not, I urge you to register today at GiftofHope.org because Life Goes On.
– Alicia Whitworth