Organ donation is emotionally complex

(Kelly O’Brien Steverson and Holly in 1983 after high school graduation)

In May 1975, when we were both 9, Kelly O’Brien and I became best friends. With only two weeks left in the school year, I was seated next to her after my family moved from Illinois to West Milton, Ohio.

Years later, I recognized how much a childhood best friendship, perhaps especially between girls, has many of the same characteristics as falling in love.

For five years, Kelly and I were together in class (where we passed notes), lunch and recess. Together we received “whacks,” or spankings at school with wooden paddles, for the trouble we’d get into. When we stayed at each other’s houses, we’d whisper in bed, rather than sleep, for much of the night.

And, boy, did we talk on the phone. Rotary-dialers hung on kitchen walls with cords long enough to stretch to nearby staircases where we’d each sit on the steps in our separate houses and gab in low voices for as long as we could, sometimes hours.

Then, a month into 10th grade, my family again moved. Yet, in the 41 years since, the past 20 of which have found me in Northeast Ohio and her in Indiana, Kelly and I have remained in touch.

But it’s not the same as keeping up with a friend in town. So I was surprised, yes, but what I really felt was flattened, when I learned in 2019 that, due to no fault of her own, Kelly would not live much longer unless she received a liver and kidney transplant.

After she was placed on the organ waitlist, Kelly went to her hospital for pre-op testing. While in the waiting room, she became unresponsive. For the next 3½ months, Kelly lived in two different ICUs while her kidneys were continuously filtered. And then, on December 28, 2019, my best friend was saved thanks to an organ donor.

Organ transplantations are relatively recent medical advances: The first successful kidney transplant was in 1954, liver in 1967, heart in 1968, heart-lung in 1981, single lung in 1983, double-lung in 1986 and intestines in 1987. More recently, face and uterus transplantations have become possible.

As a result, many lives for which no treatment options remain have been saved.

I recently visited Lifebanc, the designated organization in Northeast Ohio that facilitates organ and tissue recovery from donors, and allocations to recipients. In 2020 alone, Lifebanc managed more than 500 organ donations that saved the lives of 463 people (some recipients, like Kelly, need more than one organ to survive).

And while there is much to celebrate about the lives saved, organ donation is, of course, an emotionally complex event not just for the donor families, but also recipients.

The families of deceased donors (some organs now are recoverable from living donors, including kidneys, lungs and portions of livers and intestines) must make critical decisions during one of the worst times in their lives — their loved one, typically after a traumatic event, will not survive when removed from life support.

Area hospitals call Lifebanc only after a person has been declared brain dead. Once there, a medical and family support team respectfully discuss with the family whether the deceased wanted to be an organ or tissue donor. Sometimes the driver’s license or living will of the person on life support will indicate their wishes, sometimes not.

If you have a living will or organ-donation directive, it is imperative that your loved ones know where it is located.

This reticence can, however, fall away.

“Once I was on the waitlist, people came out of the woodwork about who’d had transplants,” Kelly told me. “Mom would be in the grocery store and people would volunteer, ‘Oh, my uncle Joe,’ or ‘My sister’ and then tell her about the people they knew with donated organs.”

Some donor families and recipients communicate with each other, but only when both parties agree. As of now, Kelly hasn’t decided whether she will or not. She told me she feels “a bit of guilt, a bit of sadness and a lot of gratitude” for her organ donor, whom she knows was a woman a couple of years older than her.

Yet from one family’s tragedy, Kelly, and possibly others, received the chance to live. What an incredible legacy each and every organ and tissue donor creates when giving something they no longer need.

To register to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, go to this Lifebanc link: https://www.lifebanc.org/how-to-help/register-as-a-donor/

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 16, 2021.


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