Organ Donation: I Had A Change of Heart!

Photo by Kathleen Thometz

Photo by Kathleen Thometz

My mother once told me a story about a heart transplant recipient who often found himself at the McDonald’s drive-through. He never liked McDonald’s food and couldn’t understand his compulsion. It turns out that the previous owner of his heart loved McDonald’s and it appeared had a “memory” of it. That sweet story of a donor living on through his recipient both enthralled and repulsed me but did not compel me to write “Yes” on the back of my New Jersey driver’s license.

In fact, I remember writing a big NO in sharpie over the area. I was not going to be an organ donor. I had a fear that if I was in a bad accident and there was a younger person with need of an important organ, the doctors would let me die in order to get their hands on my liver or whatever. Once you become obsessed with doing something you feel guilty about you search for evidence to support your position. I solidified my “I’m not an organ donor” stance with a story about a hospital, which did not release the body of a brain dead young man to his family because they were hoping to change their minds about donating his organs.

I’m embarrassed to say that even reading the Facebook posts of an acquaintance of mine, who’d spent 157 days in the hospital waiting for a heart, did not sway me to change my status. Linda told me that her heart is from an eighteen-year-old boy and she thinks about him and his mother everyday. She is humbled by the strength and grace of her donor family in the face of making a choice, which has given her a second life.

Then in March I blew out my knee while skiing and was opting to undergo surgery to get my ACL repaired. While I have no desire to ever ski again, I do want to be able to be active in other aspects of my life. While investigating my surgical options, I learned that I had two choices: harvest my own tendon or get a cadaver tendon. Harvesting a tendon can make your recovery from surgery more painful and longer. Cadaver tendons have proven to work well on people over forty. At 54, I was more than eligible.

After being wheeled out of surgery, I was given a brochure with the information to write to my donor family to thank them for my new tendon. Whoa! Somehow I didn’t connect my frozen “cadaver” tendon, with the heart that Linda got during her transplant. I don’t know where I thought my new ACL was coming from but certainly not from someone who had probably died tragically, and whose family had to make what may have been a heart-wrenching decision to donate their son or daughter’s organs. I feel so honored to have received such a gift that I have done a one-eighty on my stance on organ donation. My daughter, Mary Jo, just home from college found this interesting.

“So we are now allowed to be organ donors?”
“Of course, did I tell you you couldn’t?”
“Mom, you told us that if we were in an accident and the EMTs saw that we were organ donors, they wouldn’t work as hard to save us.”
Ugh.

When I recounted this story to Linda, she was not appalled. “When my daughter was talking about being an organ donor to her college friends, they had the same reaction. The EMTs are not looking at your license. The discussion doesn’t come up until there is no chance a person is going to recover. If more people chose to be donors, people waiting for transplants wouldn’t have to wait so long.”

I’m not sure that I have any valuable parts at my age but my mind is awhirl with possibilities. Can they use my near-sighted eyes? I don’t know if they do breast transplants but while mine are droopy, they are champion lactaters. I have nice thin wrists and ankles, so someone might want them. My crowning glory is well, on my crown. I have an enviable head of hair with very little gray. If someone needs a scalp transplant, then I’m your gal. Linda told me that they can’t reuse her heart but she will allow them to take whatever they want.

Recovering from any illness, can take a village of friends, family, doctors, and strangers. So as I go through physical therapy with Craig and my new friends at Clarity, I’m eager to get my knee back in shape and my new ligament acclimated to his new home. I’m excited to honor this present by taking care of myself, and my new ACL. I’m looking forward to writing to my donor family to thank them for this priceless gift and have already added this family to my daily prayer list.

As I think about my new ligament, pretty much constantly, I can’t help but wonder about my donor. Are you male or female? What did you like to do? Who is your family? Does my new ACL have memory of his old life and will it influence mine? I was never much of a dancer. Did you dance? Were you an athlete? Did you play baseball? Selfishly, I hope you didn’t ski. I’ve been thinking of taking up a safe exercise like swimming even though I’ve always been fearful of water. Did you love the water, and if so, will I no longer be afraid?

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