Plain City, Ohio, Planet Earth
The Momarchy
Canine + 3 men
Happy childhood in Indianapolis; Raced Hobie 16 with my Dad for 7 years; World record holding National Catapult Champion; Graduated from Earlham College; Married my best friend; Junior high and high school Latin & English teacher; Wife of handicapable husband (11 surgeries related to rheumatoid arthritis); Stay-at-home mom; Author; Photographer; Lived too briefly in Minnesota north country (snow, dog sledding, wolves, and wilderness); Quaker activist; Environmentalist; Dog lover; Curious traveler; Men's volleyball enabler; Discriminating romantic film buff; Eclectic music lover; Friend of the world

FEBRUARY 17, 2009 7:22PM

Why be an Organ & Tissue Donor? Because of Sarah.

Rate: 38 Flag

Inspired by a comment bbd made about Mary’s organ donor t-shirt in her “ Early Voting in Ohio” post.

Sylvia with SarahMy beautiful sister Sylvia and her lovely middle daughter Sarah.  This photo taken by my father was titled “Joie De Vivre” and hung at Circle Theatre, home of the Indianapolis Symphony, as part of the Summer 2000 photography exhibition “David C. Hyde:  The Best of 60 Years of Photography.”


On a Tuesday evening in August, the phone rings.  Because I’m precariously balanced on the guest bed replacing a light bulb under the fan, Steve answers.  “It’s your sister.  She wants to talk to you.”

The tiny screws affixing the globe are fiddly and exasperating.  “Can’t you just talk to her?” I plead.

Steve insists.  “She sounds upset.  She wants to talk to you.”

I love my only sister.  We’re close.  Because she’s had some hard times and doesn’t like to upset our older parents or her children, Sylvia usually calls me for support or to vent.  I encourage her to talk to me, but I confess being put out on this occasion.

Leaving the globe dangling and climbing down from my unsteady perch, I bark, “What?”

Sylvia must have held it together for Steve, but as soon as she starts speaking to me, she falls apart.  I regret my vexation and curtness as I listen to my sister sob, “Sarah’s been in an accident.  I don’t know much and haven’t seen her.  They called Parkview’s life flight from Ft. Wayne.  I’m on my way to the LaGrange hospital.  She hit a semi head on.  I’ve gotta go.  Mom’ll call later with details.”

Sarah visited less than a month ago to celebrate Andrew’s 4th birthday.  Age 17, ready to embark on her senior year of high school, Sarah shares many descriptive tags with Sylvia:  poet, obsessive reader, gifted student, fairy daughter, absent-minded, passionate, idealistic, and possessor of a physical need to write.  Sarah also reminds me of my Stephen:  invariably calm and loving, cheerful, upbeat, and beloved by everyone. 

Sarah with clover necklaceHere’s Sarah at our home wearing a clover necklace she wove in the back yard.  I’ve always envied her rope of thick hair.  Because of the birthmark on Sarah’s chin, Sylvia calls her “my touched-by-an-angel girl.”

With this image of Sarah in mind, I consider her prospects.  The phrase “life flight” induces panic.  If it’s beyond what the local hospital can handle, the situation is grave.  Having a head-on collision doubles the crash impact, so that’s a second strike against her chances.  Worst of all, though, she hit a semi.  I reckon the chances are high that Sarah will require months of therapy, be permanently paralyzed, or maybe even be mentally disabled.

Hours crawl by.  In 1997, cell phones aren’t common, so Sylvia can’t call with periodic updates like she would now.  Finally, the phone rings.  It’s Mom.

“Mary honey,” croons my gentle and affectionate mother, “Sarah’s gone.”

“Gone?  What do you mean gone?” I demand.

“She’s dead.”  There’s a momentary pause, then, “What did you expect?  She hit a semi truck head-on,” a pragmatic and steely mom I’ve never experienced replies coolly.

You know the scene in Peter Jackson’s film The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf battles the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum in Moria and falls down the abyss?   Boromir has to restrain and then carry away Frodo who is shrieking, “Nooooooo!”  That howl of disbelief, rage, and heartbreak emerges from me.  I can barely stand to watch that scene all these years later.

Steve had both knees replaced at the same time just a month before Sarah’s death.  He’s still sleeping in a home health surgery bed that he can raise up to protect his arthritic shoulders.  We’ve turned our queen bed sideways and abutted it against his twin bed so I can snuggle him and sleep as close to him as possible.  Before we fall asleep, Sylvia finally calls me herself.

Sarah stayed up late Monday night reading a Spanish translation of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, Sylvia reports, as well as preparing for a debate presentation she made the next day during her first week of school as a senior.  All Sarah’s life, Sylvia has fought to enforce a sensible bedtime—turning off the overhead light then the bedside lamp, taking away the flashlight Sarah sneaked under the covers, and threatening to revoke privileges.  It’s pretty much impossible to stop a determined reader.  Sylvia didn’t know Sarah had stayed up until 3 a.m. until it was too late.

Sarah on swingOne of Sarah’s senior pictures, developed after her death.

After a full day of school and a brilliant debate presentation to the freshman class, Sarah drove 30 miles to visit her father and his family in Kendallville.  She immensely enjoyed playing with her brothers and sighed happily to her stepmother as she left at 9 p.m., “I’m going to sleep really well tonight.  I’m going to sleep like death.”  This is the stuff guilt is made of—“If we’d known how late she was up, we would’ve insisted she stay overnight!”  “We should’ve driven her home!”  “One of us could’ve gone with her!”

About four miles from home, Sarah fell asleep at the wheel.  999 times out of 1000, she would’ve woken up embarrassed to find herself stuck in a cornfield alongside the two-lane country road.  This night, however, a semi truck crested a hill just as Sarah’s Plymouth Horizon drifted left of the yellow line.  The young driver threw his whole rig onto the shoulder trying to evade her, but felt the sickening impact as Sarah’s car lodged itself under his front left wheel.  He said she never looked up.  In one of the most impressive acts of bravery in my experience, Sylvia sought out the young truck driver at the hospital and assured him that there was nothing he could have done that would have saved her girl.

Flowers by the side of the roadThe country road where Sarah died.

I was livid.  How could Sarah have been so stupid?  Not even the seatbelt she was wearing and the airbag in her car could save her.  She should’ve realized she was too tired to drive.  She shouldn’t have stayed up so late on a school night.  She shouldn’t have been so impulsive, so romantic, so impractical.  She shouldn’t have put her mother through this.  Of my sister’s four children, Sarah was the one most like Sylvia.  I fell asleep raging against Sarah’s thoughtlessness and teenage sense of invincibility.

Long after relating the details of Sylvia’s call to Steve, I finally fall asleep.  During the night, I jolt awake, startled to hear Sarah speaking to me, once, only this once, soft and clear and sad.  “I’m sorry, Aunt Mary, I’m so sorry.”  Having helped Sylvia deal with what she describes as an amputation for more than eleven years, I’m still working on forgiveness.

By the time the life flight arrived at the accident scene, Sarah was too far gone to airlift.  Sylvia’s ex husband is a small town family doctor.  When Sarah died at the local hospital, the staff was stunned.  In shock, not a single person thought to ask Sylvia or Jerry about the possibility of organ donation.  It was Jerry’s second wife Kara, a nurse, who suggested donating Sarah’s eyes since she was such a voracious reader.  Unfortunately, eyes have to be donated almost immediately after a person’s death.  Although Sarah was not declared dead until some time after she arrived at the hospital, she was clinically dead at the accident site.  Her parents were unable to donate Sarah’s eyes, kidneys, heart, liver or other major organs.  These organs must be removed shortly after “brain death,” but while the heart is still supplying oxygen to them.  I thought this might be the end of the story, but the hospital asked if the family would be willing to make a tissue and bone donation.  Everyone enthusiastically agreed.

As Sylvia notes in her lyrical “Honoring Sarah:  Living on Both Sides of the Sword of Death” (see Sylvia’s The Wood Elf blog), “a surgical team flew in to work half the night harvesting bone, tissue, fascia, heart valves, and skin.  In spite of these surgeries, Sarah’s family and friends bade her farewell in an open casket.  She looked untouched by injury or surgical intervention.  The Red Cross sent a grateful letter of appreciation with a packet of grieving support materials within two days of Sarah’s death, and has supplied us with periodic updates on the healing use of her donated tissue, which for many members of her family has been the greatest source of comfort in their grief.”

Sarah with SteveSteve and Sarah celebrating Christmas at the home of Mary’s parents.

To date Sarah’s tissue, bone, skin, fascia, and valves have changed the lives of at least 35 individuals.  Excited and gratified, Sylvia would call and read me the list of recipients, including several like Steve who suffer from arthritis.  One high school athlete from the Columbus, Ohio, area where we live received Sarah’s anterior cruciate ligament to repair a knee injury and perhaps allow her to compete once more.

I’m writing this to encourage you to consider making an organ and tissue donation at the time of your death.  You can have this noted on your driver’s license in some states and should carry a donor card in your wallet.  Most importantly, though, you need to tell your family what your wishes are in this regard.  Different states have various age criteria for donors (up to age 55 to 80, or no limitation).  In fact, a 95-year-old lady was a liver donor.  Those excluded include persons with cancer (who can’t donate tissue but can donate eyes), hepatitis, recurrent infections, AIDS, other autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis), and those with Alzheimer’s.  Donors with heart conditions can be accepted, as can diabetics.  Guidelines are constantly being updated to keep pace with medical advances.  Organ donations need to be made immediately at the time of death, but tissue, bone, tendon, valves, and veins can be donated up to 24 hours after a death.

If you want to give the gift of life at the time of your death, please make sure that it’s noted on or with your driver’s license and tell all your family.  You can print a donor card here.  You can also try to be the one who makes the life-saving suggestion if (God forbid) you’re ever the one standing in the hospital waiting room reeling from the loss of a loved one.  If this free, ongoing, and life-saving gift makes sense to you, please pass this message along to everyone you think might be interested (you can copy and paste into an e-mail for non OS friends and family).

Like Sylvia and me, Sarah was a writer.  A year before her death, she wrote in her journal, “Mine is the happiness of a shooting star, as bright and as fleeting.”  Eerily prophetic.  The summer before her sophomore year, Sarah noted, “Behind all laughter there are tears, before the peace comes the agony.  In every love there is heartbreak.  The art of living is to see the beauty in all.”

By reading her poetry, journals, debate pieces, and short stories, I’ve learned from my niece.  What has Sarah taught me?  Be observant.  Cultivate hope.  Look for the good in everyone.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Love may indeed be enough.  Make time for poetry.  Take time to get to know your loved ones.  Today.  God is.  Darkness can be comforting.  Write.  The world needs dreamers (even off-in-dreamland ones) just as much as Type A’s.  Drive carefully and not when you’re weary.  Accept yourself.  Don’t be afraid to live life to the fullest.

I hope to honor and spread Sarah’s brilliance and beauty through an ever widening network of individuals. 

Please consider joining me in becoming an organ & tissue donor and passing on the gift of life.

Sarah in bridesmaid's dressAnother photo taken by Sarah’s devoted grandfather.  In this photo, Sarah is wearing Grammie’s bridesmaid dress (which Esther wore for her brother Otto’s wedding in 1948).  Sarah is standing in front of Grandpa’s rose garden, which he’s been tending more than 50 years.

Please be sure to read Sylvia’s eloquent speech given on behalf of the Red Cross in the months following Sarah’s death here.  Her courage and poetic imagery will impress and inspire you.  Please share Sylvia’s moving, compelling, and hopeful piece—properly credited—widely also.

(If you find this helpful, please remember to go back up to the top and rate this, so that as many people as possible will see it.)

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Very heartfelt and convincing. I'll do it. o'steph, next of kin, take note!
I will always remember Sarah as the little girl sitting on my knee at Christmas time. She was a jewel and I miss her terribly. Thanks to you and Sylvia for the poignant writing and for kindling hope once again amidst this tragedy.
Mary, I'm sorry, I couldn't read it all the way through. I came to the part when your Mom called you, expecting a Hollywood ending. I'll come back for the rest of it. She was so beautiful and your tribute is so full of love. Peace.
Now I have read both and I can barely breathe. What a heartbreaking event and what amazing generosity on the part of her parents.
O'Kathryn, organ and tissue donation seems like the kind of thing a biologist would appreciate and approve of. I'm delighted that you feel moved to pursue this. Please be sure to carry a card with your driver's license.

This may sound perverse, but it pleases me that you couldn't tell whether Sarah was going to be the recipient or the donor. I worked hard to write this (and titled it) to keep the outcome ambiguous.

Trust me, our family would have much preferred the Hollywood ending. Tragically, this time we got the "mature" ending (my mother-in-law's phrase for a movie I won't like because it doesn't end happily ever after). Would to God it had turned out otherwise.

As I often say to our sons, the fact that you found this so hard to read (or a heartbreaking scene in a movie hard to watch) indicates that you are a compassionate, caring, and sensitive person.

I look forward to more commentary from you later.
Would rate a hundred times to get this message out there. Sarah's family have honored her life and spirit in the most important and generous way possible.
Susanne and Squillo,

Yes, all three of Sarah's parents demonstrated the highest level of selflessness and compassion. My admiration for all those who make the gift of life is boundless.
Crying here. Such a lovely tribute to this beautiful young woman. I'm so sorry you lost her.

I've been registered as an organ donor since the day I was old enough. I hope your family story convinces others.

Take care.
First, thanks for reminding me to rate 'cos I do forget!

Second, well, just wow. You've conveyed your message so very clearly. You left us no excuse not to donate; plenty of great resaon to be donors, and clear intructions on how to be sure our donation intentions are clear. At the same time, you've related a deeply touching about your beloved niece, and I am in tears. I am so sorry for such a loss.
Thank you, Mary.....Such a poignant sharing of life's mysterious ways and how God uses all our experiences to bring forth "new life".....I am still trying to integrate my thoughts and feelings since reading this post.... Many years ago, I lost my 19 year old brother in an automoble accident ....
Good for you! I hope it helps too. Thanks for you concern.

I'm hoping the ratings may bring it to the editors' attention and get this cause more exposure. Steve found me the link to a donor card to make it easier to translate good intentions into positive action. Thanks for your kind words.

It was lovely to meet you in Florida in December. Photos of the grand meeting of DogWoman with CatLovingNanGramma are forthcoming!!!

I'm so sorry that this dredged up your horrible experience with your own brother. I guess it's good to remember and honor those we've lost. I'd love to hear you tell about it if and when you feel able via message, e-mail, or a post if you feel so inclined.

Hugs to you and Miss.
I see some of you have commented on Sylvia's companion piece and some haven't. My sister teaches full time and is helping take care of our mother, whose health is failing. She's not able to be as active on OS as she'd like, but I hope you'll go check out her beautifully written treatment of the same subject with other gorgeous photos of my lovely niece. There's a link to Sylvia's post at the end of mine above. Thanks for spreading the love. XXXOOO
Touching and effective beyond words. I am a donor and request others to be on my website. Thank you for sharing this tragic story for a meaningful purpose.
Heartbreaking, DogWoman.

When we went through this, unfortunately, my mother was too shattered to think straight and outright refused donation. I was pissed at her then, and a tiny part of me remains pissed at her today. I should have lied. I should have told the disjointed voice on the phone that I was, in fact, his mother, not his sister, and I should have told them to go ahead, harvest everything that was salvageable. It would have been a forgiveable lie.

Mom regrets that moment of irrational, belated, and misdirected selfishness today, but it's too damned late.

I'd go so far as to say, don't just tell your family your wishes; make them promise to honor them should it ever come to that, no matter how much it may hurt.
I can't breathe. I can't swallow. I can't speak. Your vivid descriptions was so painful and touching. Thank you for sharing such an intimate story.

I have also experienced that anger, pain, and guilt. My beloved 22-year-old stepson had a seizure and crossed the median, also killing the other driver. He was hiding from everyone that his seizures were getting bad, that he should never have been driving. Everyone had a tiny piece of the story, and if we'd all gotten together to compare notes, we might have connected the dots.

Thank you for your organ donor awareness, and for your story. My husband was also a recipient of tissue to repair a shattered wrist.

Now I have to sneak to the bathroom before someone asks me why I'm sitting her sobbing at my desk.
When I was in high school, I was the recipient of a scholarship from the parents of a girl who died when she fell asleep at the wheel. One night, I jerked awake while driving home and from that day, I have been so afraid to drive while even a little tired.

Thank you for letting us all in on the life of a girl whose life I think probably feels a bit closer to many of us here. (I played trumpet too)

I have always planned to donate any parts of me they will take. When they are done, my body is to go to the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center so the rest of me can return to the earth. I can only hope to provide positive things after I pass through physical gifts or through education.
wow. What an amazing story. thankyou and rated.
Your beautiful niece was a tremendous loss in every way, Mary. And a tremendous inspiration, as well. Tonight, I think I'll switch off the bedside light a little earlier in her memory. We never think it can happen to us, until it does.
As I wrote at Sylvia’s blog, I really have no words. I have always checked the donor box on my driver’s licenses. This issue of being a donor often needs to be refreshed in people’s minds.

I recently tested to donate a kidney to a friend, but I have a rare blood type and did not match.

I once fell asleep at the wheel while driving at night. When my head nodded and snapped me awake, I was so scared that I pulled over and took a nap, and that has been my approach ever since.

One of the most affecting and moving pieces I've read. Thank you for reminding people that transplants WORK and for tackling a subject that most people would rather avoid.

In the Indian community, this is a very fraught subject if it is discussed or considered at all. Ritual washing of your dead by family members (women) before cremation is a hugely symbolic and meaningful rite. Woman brings you into this life and ushers you from it, thus bringing a closure to this cycle. It would be difficult to alter this deeply held norm.

Thank you again for giving us beautiful Sarah to meditate upon and meditate upon our own lives.

Om Shanti.
I am already a donor--did so on a whim when I renewed my driver's license. Now I am glad I am. Thank you for this moving post about your niece. She looks beautiful in the photos.
So sad that Sarah is no longer with you. Organ donation is a wonderful thing. I understand that many countries are now adopting a policy that you are assumed to be a donor unless you make your wishes known that you don't want to be. I think this is a great idea.

Thank you for this sad story that nonetheless offers hope in the selfless act of the ultimate gift.
NM is one of the states with an organ donation statement right on the license. Both Martha's and mine are checked yes and we have given each other medical powers of attorney for just such reasons. Thank you for sharing this loving tribute to Sarah and your family.
I'm sitting here, eyes full. I am so sorry. When one is taken so precipitously, so Stupidly, it's easy to be angry.

Don't worry about the donor card thingie. I've been a Donor Card carrier for as long as I can remember (20+ years?), and highly recommend same.
Such a moving story. Although I'm so sorry for your loss, it's inspiring that your family turned their grief into something good. You honor Sarah with this wonderful post and call to action.
Rated for that little pick dot on my driver's license.
Lea, I'm glad you're a fellow advocate. Lea has an impressive page of ideas for helping others on her web site here: http://www.sololady.com/Helping_Others.aspx

Verbal Remedy, so sorry to hear that you went through this with your brother. The loss is hard enough without the anger, isn't it? Yes, you're probably right, don't just tell your loved ones, ask them to promise to honor your wishes.

dogmom, I'm sure you did everything you could for your beloved stepson. Sometimes, we can't save our loved ones from themselves. Like your husband, my Mom is now a recipient, having received a human heart valve last April to replace her 22-year-old mechanical valve. It's an incredible gift.

Glad you survived your "wake-up call" and now drive aware that "it can happen to me." On my sister's blog, Mishima666 also mentioned that he will donate his body to science. That's a brave investment in the future of humankind, which I deeply admire. My beloved Uncle Jerry died in October from a cancer he had been battling for 18 years and left his body to IU med school in case the donation might save others from suffering as he did. Bless you.
LuluandPhoebe, thanks for passing the word along and I pray your daughters will live long, healthy, and happy lives.

doleresflores, I appreciate your kind words.

Shiral, thanks for honoring my beautiful niece's memory. You are so right when you note, "We never think it can happen to us, until it does."

BBE, yes, sleep deprivation is one of those things like talking on a cell phone while driving that people minimize. We think of teenagers as being the main culprits, but each of us has a pretty dangerous invincibility complex. Thanks for stopping by.
To say this moved me would be so small a response it would border on disgraceful. What a tribute to Sarah, and what a beautiful call for donation. Thank you, for this loving post. I'm a Sarah, and now you've made all of us Sarahs, too.
I have always believed fervently in blood, organ and tissue donation, but this post brought home the reality behind the theories. I commend your family for their courage and kindness in doing something so personally generous and truly life-altering for the recipients. Excellent post. I am going to pass it along for sure.