When Lost Loved Ones Give Life To Others Organ Donation Can Have Redemptive Power For Some Grieving Families.

Posted: April 16, 1995

WASHINGTON — On her dead son's birthday and at Christmastime, Judy Carr inquires about his organs, to see how they are doing in their new lives.

When she learned a few weeks ago that one of his kidneys had failed, she grieved anew for her Tim, lost in a car wreck at age 18. Yet Carr, of Mary Esther, Fla., has found in organ donation a source of redemptive power.

And so it has been for Pat Bell of Tampa. She believes her Jonathan has continued to help people since a gunshot claimed him.

"His heart valves, his strong, young, healthy, 17-year-old male bones. . . . All his good parts didn't go to heaven," said Bell.

"He's still helping people carry in their groceries. Who knows what else he's still helping them do?"

Over the last two decades, advances in medicine have made organ transplants fairly routine for doctors.

Last year in the United States, nearly 19,000 such transplants were performed, most using hearts, kidneys, livers and other organs taken from nearly 5,000 donors at the time of their deaths.

But for families, donating organs is anything but routine. They say it has brought a unique and sometimes mysterious dimension to their loss.

On this day in Washington this month when the cherry blossoms drift pale as clouds against the changing sky, they gather for a ceremony honoring organ donation. This week, April 16 to 22, marks National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week.

Through such gatherings, the families slowly find one another; they sort out the words to express the things they've been through, their experiences on the boundaries of life and death, self and other.

And when words fail, they hug and hug as if for life itself.

"It's all very new," said Susan Padgett. "It's new to everybody. We are just trying to feel this out."

She and husband Alan, of Maumelle, Ark., lost their 14-year-old daughter, Kelly, in a Jet Ski accident. Organ donation, Susan Padgett said, "was the only way we could let go of her."

She has since met the young woman saved by Kelly's heart.

It was "traumatic" and "awesome" to touch her, to hear her say she planned to name her first child Kelly.

Looking into that young woman's eyes, seeing the gratitude and the hope, Susan Padgett knew in some new way her daughter was dead.

Many families have never met the people who received their loved ones' organs. Many do not want to. Organs are not bought and sold. They are beyond price.

A national network of organ procurement organizations works with hospitals to distribute organs and tissues. Out of respect for privacy and the power of such gifts, such acts have usually been kept anonymous.

Then, too, there have been concerns about the potential for hurt, misunderstanding and exploitation: worries about organ donor families asking for money, or seeking to hold on to their lost loved ones through the life of a stranger.

But as transplantation becomes more common, and as donor families speak out about their needs, there is growing talk of breaking down the walls between donors and recipients.

"It is one of the most controversial topics we are dealing with right now," said Kenneth Moritsugu, assistant surgeon general who donated the organs of his wife, Donna Lee, after she died in an accident.

She was devoted to ecology, he said, and now, by chance, her heart is keeping a Florida marine biologist alive. A doctor, Moritsugu knows physicians are trained to think of death as a failure. But organ donation has helped him think of life and death as part of a greater continuum.

There is a symmetry to their grief, said Skip Wisenbaker, here as a chaplain for LifeLink, an Atlanta organ procurement organization.

"The donor family has grief, but also the redemptive quality donation can provide," he said. "And the recipients. They have to go through grief that someone died. To claim the organ for themselves . . . to claim life."

Some thinkers such as Laurence O'Connell, the president of the Chicago- based Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, suggests that transplantation "plays into our denial of death," the belief that ''there is always one last fix."

Last year, about 3,000 people died awaiting a suitable organ.

Many people never sign a donor card, worrying that donation might somehow affect their care. Some want to give but do not want to discuss it with their

families. Some families refuse. They worry that donation might cause loved ones further suffering.

The fears are not valid, say advocates of organ donation.

For organs to be viable, death must take place under controlled hospital conditions. Most potential donors have been victims of accidents or other traumas that have left their brains dead but other organs sustained by "life- support" systems. It is at this time that the family is given the option of organ donation.

At the ceremony, Chester Szuber, a big, soft-spoken Tennessean, tells his story plainly. The death of his daughter Patti, 21, in an auto accident. The surgery that tucked her heart into his broad chest.

Listening to his story, Maggie Green feels a pang of envy. She thinks of her own son, Nicholas, 7, shot dead by highway bandits while her family was on vacation in Italy.

For an admittedly irrational moment she thinks, "If I could have received his kidney I'd be glad."

Instead, his organs went to five Italians in dire need. And Maggie and her husband, Reginald Green, of Bodega Bay, Calif., have joined the crusade for organ donation.

Green's child is gone, buried in a country churchyard. And yet, she said, her child lives.


* To obtain more information about organ and tissue donation, or to request a donor card, call the nonprofit Coalition on Donation, which represents a national network of transplant organizations, at 1-800-355-7427.

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