Living for three
Twelve years ago today someone gave me the gift of life. No I’m not 12 years old, but I do consider this day on par with my birthday because this is the day a selfless football player’s family decided to donate his organs upon his death, and I am one of his fortunate recipients.
Twenty-six years ago a child’s family made the same gut-wrenching decision that also gave me life. I have never needed an entire organ, just a very important part of the heart which I was born without, but I do consider myself a recipient of someone’s amazing sacrifice.
So what is organ donation and what should you do if you want to be an organ donor?
There are four types of donation: organ and tissue donation from living donors, donation after brain death, donation after cardiac death, and whole body donation.
The first category includes when a living person decides to donate either one of their kidneys, or part of their liver, pancreas, lung (or one whole lung), or intestines. Tissue donation from a living donor includes blood, bone marrow, blood stem cells or umbilical cord blood.
Donation after brain death is the most common way a person donates organs. Brain death is usually the result of accident, heart attack or stroke, and it is when the brain will never function again in a way which will support the rest of the body. This is different than persistent vegetative state. There is no reaction from the brain and many tests are done to confirm brain death.
Donation after cardiac death is when a person does not meet the definition of brain death (they do not pass all the tests) but they are unable to support cardiac and respiratory function when life-support is withdrawn.
Whole body donation is when a person may be ineligible for organ or tissue donation but they want their body used for medical science (mostly for medical student education).
In the last three categories, the person wishing — or not wishing — to donate can’t voice their desires because they’re dead, so the decision often falls on the shoulders of the family. As a nurse, I’ve seen families fight over the presumed wishes of the individual, struggle with their own beliefs despite the individual’s wishes to donate, and waver back and forth in making this decision in a time of extreme grief. Even with a dot on the patients’ licenses, families still contend that “they didn’t know what that dot really meant.”
So if you do want to be a donor, what can you do to take the weight off of your family?
In California you can sign up online through the Donate Life Californian Registry at http://www.donatelifecalifornia.org/. Signing up with the registry will ensure your wishes upon your death. You would be surprised how many lives you can save, not to mention the burden you will take off of your family through signing up with the registry.
I had a 5-year-old patient who died when he was hit by a car while on his bike. His amazing mother made the selfless decision to donate his organs despite her extreme grief. I shared with her that I was myself a recipient, and she told me I was proof that she had made the right decision. Although that beautiful boy was never able to grow up and have children of his own, he saved five lives that night. Five people will grow up and have children of their own because of his mother’s amazing decision. I reminded his family that through donation, he did more in his short life than most people do in 80 years.
Donation isn’t for everyone. There may be many reasons — religious or cultural — why a person may find organ donation unimaginable. However, if you’ve never thought about it, or are uncertain about becoming a donor, I encourage you to think about the legacy you want to leave behind and whether giving life through donation can be part of your impact on the world.
I celebrate today, my life day, in recognition of the pain and sacrifice the families of my donors experienced. I travel the world, hold hands with my husband, hug my son, dance in the rain, sing in the shower, stop to smell the roses, and generally try to live life to the fullest… just for them; it’s the least I can do.