American Red Cross Organ and Tissue Donation Education Speech
Unexpected death is a powerful two-edged sword. It cuts swiftly and brutally, rending a jagged tear in the fabric of our lives, leaving loose ends that never stop unraveling in spite of all our efforts at mending. Yet that same swift sword cuts open a broad and shining pathway through the jungle of disease and misery that afflicts so many lives. The death that sent my life into a whirlwind of chaos and despair has brought hope and healing, comfort and renewal to other families since.
My seventeen-year-old daughter Sarah died a year and a half ago this month on her way home from a visit to her father's family in the evening. She had been up late the night before preparing a speech presentation and reading a book of poetry. She fell asleep at the wheel, drifting left of the centerline and hitting a semi whose driver did everything humanly possible to pull his truck out of her way. Sarah was a brilliant scholar, an insightful writer, a gentle soul who was universally loved--a unique claim for a high school senior. Her application to Harvard lies unfinished on her desk. Her short stories, poetry, and meditations will be published posthumously. I miss her thick curls and soft freckles, her snort of laughter, her graceful fingers, her loving snuggles.
Sarah's bones have been reduced into a fine kind of dust -- giving a magical meaning to the Bible's perception of dust to dust: the paste made from the powder of her bones now cushions transplanted knees and hips to protect the recipient grandmas, uncles, brothers from suffering rejection. In my mind I see an image of another seventeen-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, who can once again compete athletically because she has Sarah's anterior cruciate ligament transplanted into her knee. Seven men and women whose spinal injury or disease made disabling pain a routine part of their day have used Sarah's tissue to stabilize their spine--and their lives. I see those parents and grandparents picking up a toddler or hugging a loved one without the shooting pain, and I see Sarah smile. Two elderly grandmothers who suffered broken legs used the bones that I made for my child in their healing. My vision of these women walking into the parlor after church for coffee is overlaid with the image of Sarah, dancing. A young man from Phoenix, Arizona wears a patch of Sarah's skin, freckles and all, to protect the gaping wound of burned flesh that would not heal uncovered--and I hear Sarah's speech voice urging her audience to care for the weak and the helpless. Finally, I hear the soft voice of a mother my age as she bends over the bed of her 24-year-old daughter recovering from brain surgery. In the echoes of that voice I hear the pealing triumph of Sarah's trumpet ringing out the descant of the Ode to Joy. Sarah in death carries on her mission of bringing comfort and healing, continuing the work of her life.
My family lives on both sides of the sword of death. Grandma Warrener has had both knee joints replaced. So has Uncle Steve, who at 38 years has had both knees and a hip joint replaced due to the painful crippling of rheumatoid arthritis. Our Creator, who gave us free will to live our own way, has to also let us die our own way. We see so evident in nature the regenerative cycle of death contributing to new life. What a gift that we were given the curiosity, the skill, the intellect, and the determination to find the means to transform human death into new life. Like the flowers that push through the charred wasteland left by a forest fire, organ and tissue donation grows bright hope from the depths of grief.
When Sheriff Merrifield pulled into my driveway that night, I knew that Sarah had died. My reaction was both numbness and a sense of having known. This child lived in a separate reality, unconscious of everyday acts of self-protection. She could read blithely through the french fries burning in the oven until the smoke alarms finally caught her attention. Sarah mourned the deaths of three classmates, one each year of high school. After the second death, she wrote a will. She had signed the organ donor agreement on her drivers' license with my blessing. I knew then and I know now with utter certainty that Sarah would have gladly given every ounce of herself to help others. Yet in the hospital emergency room the reality of donating organs did not enter my mind. None of the ER staff proposed it either probably because, as in most small town hospitals, they knew us all as neighbors, and it was all they could do to carry out their duties in the face of their own grief. It was Sarah's stepmother who sobbed into the family hug, "As much as Sarah loved to read, could we ask to donate her eyes?" The family reacted with unanimous accord immediately agreeing that donation of all possible organs and tissue would be what she would want. Her father handled the request and the consent, and 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 with 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. The knowledge that Sarah's soul lives on in all of us who love her and that her body lives on as well, in healing and restoration of life, carries me through the bleakest days and nights. I urge you to facilitate organ and tissue donation at every opportunity.
Please see my sister Mary’s (DogWoman’s) companion piece “Why be an Organ & Tissue Donor? Because of Sarah.”