Nichole Smith at Chaos in the Country asked me to write a guest post for her blog from the perspective of the family of an organ donor. Nichole understands donation on a very personal level: her niece received a donated heart. We are both grateful for the miracle of transplantation. But transplantation and donation are not easy subjects. They force us to think about our own mortality.
If we met and I introduced myself as “the mother of an organ donor,” what would you think? First, you’d have to wrap your mind around the realization that the donor in question must be dead. Yes, I am the mother of a dead 19-year-old girl whose organs saved the lives of four people, and whose corneas, skin, and bone tissue improved the lives of dozens more.
Maya’s life ended in a freak accident. Allowing her organs and tissues to be given to strangers in need brought life and hope to the recipients and their families, and gave our family something to cling to in the early months and years of grief.
Two years after she died, I heard my daughter’s heart beating in the chest of the man who received it, a scene I describe in Swimming with Maya.
Today, 18 people will die waiting for an organ transplant. There are more than 105,000 people, many of them children, waiting for another family to make the most difficult decision a parent or spouse will ever face. Even if you have put the pink donor sticker on your driver’s license, in the end, your next of kin must give consent for the donation of your organs.
In Swimming with Maya I describe my daughter’s irretrievable coma, and what it was like to stand next to her lifeless body as I prayed for her recovery. After four days at her bedside, we were called to a small windowless conference room.
The surgeon who had operated on Maya’s brain the evening of her accident told us she was brain dead. He explained that radioactive dye studies had confirmed what he had suspected: there was no blood flow to her brain. He had already called another surgeon to confirm his diagnosis of death from neurological criteria.
Then he turned to me and said, “Would you consider organ donation?”
His question hung in the air for a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity. Maya’s face the day she was born flashed in front of my eyes, and then an image of my diabetic mother plucking at the sheets on her deathbed – a kidney transplant would have saved my mother’s life. I remembered the day I decided to become a donor myself, shortly after Mom died. Then I thought of other families in other windowless hospital rooms desperately waiting for good news.
“Yes,” I said.
In that moment, I felt an overwhelming desire not to let my daughter die entirely. The ventilator powered her breathing. Machines and tubes kept her alive. Her cheeks were still rosy. Maya was a “beating heart cadaver” – dead, but not quite. Donation seemed like a way to salvage her lost life. Giving my consent was an act of hope, of defiance, a way of keeping Maya alive.
On a recent fall afternoon, I visited my daughter’s grave. It was her 41st birthday. She has been dead for 21 years, longer than she was alive. In those two decades, I befriended the man who received her heart, and the woman who received Maya’s liver. Both were parents of young children at the time of their transplants. Those children who could have lost a mom or dad have grown into adults having children of their own. Because of our “gift of life” they got to grow up with their parents.
I didn’t have the power to change Maya’s fate. But I had the privilege of saying yes to something that brought joy to many people, including me. In my book, I tell the story of how donation changed the course of my grief and my life.
Please visit Chaos in the Country and leave a comment to enter to win a copy of Swimming with Maya. Thank you, Nichole, for raising awareness of organ donation.