Editor’s note: The Reflective Nurse supports Donate Life. National Donate Life Month (NDLM) is recognized each year in April, featuring an entire month of activities to help encourage Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors. Reflecting on NDLM 2016, I’m grateful for receiving my first invitation to a Gift of Life Ceremony by way of my friend Tanya, a LifeSource Ambassador who shared her family experience with organ donation at the Gift of Life Ceremony at Mercy Hospital, Coon Rapids, this past week. Tanya and I took pause to merge and ‘dual sig’ the following reflections on this moving event.
Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Insightful guy that Greek philosopher, Epictetus. What a moving privilege in this life to see people bring this insight to fruition.
I’ve written about my dear friend Tanya, who serves as her mother’s primary caregiver in the journey through a heart transplant that happened earlier this year. A nurse with critical care experience at the bedside, Tanya has confided private details of her latest critical care experience: providing primary care for her mother. I am consistently moved by how she has reacted to all that’s happened to her mom, to her immediate family of five, and to herself on this road that has required an all-terrain approach. So when she asked me to come hear her speak publicly about her passion for sharing the message, “Donate Life,” it was kind of a no-brainer. I was there.
In the 20-some months since Tanya’s mom learned that she needed a heart transplant, Tanya has reacted with a posture of propelling most of her work and volunteer efforts toward the cause of donating life. She donates blood. She made a shift in her nursing career to have a hand in the critical, behind-the-scenes work of bone marrow transplants. And she volunteers in the community as a LifeSource Ambassador, giving public speeches about becoming a donor. It’s not what’s happened to Tanya, it’s how she’s reacted to it that matters.
The opening remarks made by hospital administrators at Mercy Hospital’s Gift of Life Ceremony heralded the life-giving power we can sustain once we’re gone. We have a choice to become a donor and to make that wish known on our licenses and to our loved ones. But why would we do that? Enter the personal stories shared by Tanya, daughter of a heart recipient, and Brian Salisbury, cornea recipient and donor father. Different accounts but same message: the foresight of reacting to loss of life by giving the Gift of Life was what we were all present to honor with donor families at this moving event.
The, “Donate Life” flag was raised in front of Mercy Hospital to close the Gift of Life Ceremony. Names of the five donors cared for at Mercy Hospital this year were read, and we paused in a moment of awe for the twelve lives that were changed forever for receiving the Gifts of Life given by these donors. Donating life does not remove the pain of losses sustained. But there is power in knowing that in moments of great loss, we can give great gifts.
My reflection on this event is dedicated to my friend Tanya, who has reacted with her whole heart to express gratitude for the heart her mother received.
“I was honored to be asked to speak at the Donate Life Ceremony this week at Mercy Hospital to celebrate Donate Life Month. When the email came through, I replied and accepted with only enough pause to ensure that it wasn’t a night with 4 kid activities (only 3!).
I have only had the opportunity to share our story of organ donation on one other occasion, in a completely different setting. In December I spoke in a hospital setting to a very small group of new ICU RN’s who were receiving their required training on when to initiate a call to LifeSource. I am a nurse, so I felt safe and secure speaking to a group of peers…a small group of peers! I brought photos and choked back tears through almost the entire time I spoke. Speaking of my speaking; I plowed through my story at a blaring speed and I don’t even know that they were able to decipher my words. They did see my tears, they did see the photos I brought, and I did see one RN wiping away tears.
This upcoming speaking engagement would be very different. Speaking to donor families, recipient families, and hospital staff. They anticipated a group of around 50 people.
When I spoke in December, it felt good to talk. It allowed me to give something back while waiting for this gift. I was able to share the story, spread the word, share the hope and stress the importance of nurses in caring for those who are waiting. Putting a face to the story of transplant.
Fast forward to this past Thursday. I felt rusty. I felt unsure and I was a ball of nerves. Frankly, I asked more than once, “WHY did I think I could do this?” I hadn’t spoken since my mom received her Gift of Life. And can I tell you, it has been a very long road post-transplant. I was terribly worried that if I shared the story, the journey, and the challenges of recovery, I would make a donor family feel that in some way I (*we) were ungrateful for this tremendous gift. In addition, I was moderately terrified that our donor family would be in attendance. I would hate for the dates to line up and have something click when they heard my story. So I made the timeline vague and hoped for the best.
Upon arrival I saw the LifeSource hospital liaison I know (she’s awesome), and the chaplain (also quite incredible). Both came over to say hello and I met my fellow speaker who was both a Corneal Transplant recipient and donor father. Things were falling into place.
I was very nervous before I spoke. Heart pounding, shaky knees, quivery voice. I was grateful that Natalie agreed to join me at this event. It was calming to know that I was not alone in this big auditorium and to know that someone believed in my ability, my story, and my strength. As I continue to find my voice and what this life experience is teaching me, I am so grateful she has been willing to encourage me and hold me up on terrifying days just like this.
I was the 4th speaker, following two medical directors from the hospital. I had written a long, detailed account of my mom’s journey to transplant (3.5 pages single spaced. Seriously?!) Of course, upon standing in front of this room full of donor families, my reading completely went out the window. I paraphrased, jumped all around, and skipped some rather pivotal pieces (in my opinion) of our story. I choked up twice. Twice? No, maybe thrice. Be that as it may. I didn’t make a big, ugly cry face. (Also a huge concern) …I was able to keep sharing. I had revised my story on the train just 2 hours before and as I closed I was so very grateful my very jumpy and emotional brain remembered what I had added so hastily on the train. I think it was the very most important part of our story and I think it was so important on this, of all nights to say:
“As I acknowledge every milestone in my mom’s healing from her heart transplant; one month, two months…I hold our Donor Family in my heart, as they too are acknowledging their own milestones in loss and healing.”
What I find more important than sharing our story leading to transplant is ensuring all donor families know that their decision and gift means something. Not just that day, but every day. The day of transplant I thought of our donor family all day. The day after, and every single milestone I noted for my mom’s recovery, I have held the family with me as they grieve and heal and miss their beloved family member.
I am so very honored to share our story, to express gratitude for the Gift of Life, and to hopefully sway one more person to have the conversation with those they love before they find themselves in a dire situation.
Please, Donate Life.”
Editor's note: I love hearing from readers. I'd especially love to hear your account of participating in lifesaving actions as listed and linked below! Are you a donor? Do you give blood? Have you considered joining the Bone Marrow Registry? Opportunities to Donate Life abound. I welcome your comments here, on Facebook, or, feel free to reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org