Organ donation: Turning grief into a gift

Most of us know today as Valentine’s Day, but it’s also National Donor Day, a day to recognize the importance of becoming an organ, eye or tissue donor because of the lives it can enhance or even save. A day to start the conversation with your family members so they are aware of your wishes.

And it’s a day to remember those who have performed an act of true love and sacrifice.

Last year, 19 organ donors at Memorial Hospital saved 69 individuals and 59 tissue donors healed 4,425 individuals. Two organ donors at Elkhart General Hospital saved 10 individuals and 26 tissue donors healed 1,950 individuals.

Thanks to 42 cornea donors, their families and the hard work of Elkhart General staff, 84 individuals received the gift of sight last year. Eight-five corneal donors at Memorial Hospital last year helped many more individuals regain their sight.

Anna McCool was one of those corneal donors.

“Our 17-year-old daughter, Anna, died by suicide in August 2018 in downtown South Bend. She was alive but unconscious when emergency crews rushed her to Memorial Hospital. Because she didn’t have any identification in her pocket, we weren’t notified that she was at Memorial until police found her identification at the scene, and after the trauma team tried their best, during an hour or more, to save her. Surrounded by members of the clergy, including the priest from our own parish, we said our final goodbye to our daughter in shock and agony. Organ donation was not even on our minds.

“Anna, who suffered with depression and other mental health issues for several years, had sunk into a deeper depression during her final two. She had wrestled with whether to be an organ donor. Therefore, when the head nurse approached us about tissue donation before we left the hospital that night, we initially didn’t know how to respond. We both are willing to be organ and tissue donors ourselves, but didn’t know Anna’s true feelings. Our priest, who was present when the nurse inquired, suggested that any hesitation Anna had about being a donor could be related to her depression, from which she was now free.

“In the end, we weighed his thoughts and our own values, and decided to make the best decision on our teen daughter’s behalf – the decision to donate her tissues, bones, corneas, and heart valve so that others’ lives may be changed for the better.

“By December we found out that Anna’s corneas had been donated to two different people. One went to a man in his 60s who lives in the Indianapolis area. We imagine that he might now be able to see his grandchildren more clearly. Her other cornea traveled all the way to Egypt, where it was transplanted into the eye of a 38-year-old woman. Anna always wanted to go overseas. We now imagine she is gazing in wonder at the pyramids.

“We were told that Anna donated the maximum amount of tissue, and that her donations could help up to 75 people during the next few years.

“Seventy-five people.

“Maybe some play flute like she did. Maybe some love animals and reading like she did. Maybe some play sports like she wished she could have played them. But whomever receives her donations, we are comforted by the knowledge that although we lost a child, she has not been “lost.” Her donations are already allowing others to live healthier, happier lives.”

— Deanna and Brad McCool, Mishawaka

Letting your loved ones know your donation wishes is important. Today is a perfect day to have this discussion.

“I have the privilege and honor to be a part of the donation process as a bedside ICU nurse and educator,” says Debi Beehler, RN, who works at Memorial Hospital.

One organ donor can potentially save up to eight individuals by donating their heart, liver, pancreas, both lungs, both kidneys and intestines. One tissue donor can potentially heal up to 125 individuals by donating corneas, bones, veins, valves, skin and tendons.

In the event you are the victim of a tragedy, the Indiana Donor Network looks to your family to make decisions about organ, tissue and corneal donation. If you are “donor designated,” then you’ve already made the legally binding decision and consented to be a donor. Let your loved ones know about your plans.

It’s never easy to see tragedy and what it can do to the families and friends of the patient, she says.

“I always tell them that something good can come of this awful thing that happened,” Beehler said. “Their loved one can be a hero, and save, enhance and change so many lives.”

For more information about how you can become a donor, click here to visit the Donate Life Indiana website or click here to visit the Gift of Life Michigan website.