Editor’s note: As we endure the coronavirus lockdown it’s important to remember the most vulnerable to being infected: the elderly, cancer patients, those with HIV and those who have undergone an organ transplant. April is organ donor month in Illinois. Columnist Scott Reeder tells of his family’s experience with an organ transplant.
SPRINGFIELD — Ever found yourself hoping someone will die so someone you love can live?
Sixteen years ago, I found myself in that unenviable position.
My brother Danny was dying. For years he had suffered from a rare liver disease — primary sclerosing cholangitis. Finally, his liver was giving out. Death was near.
For months he had teetered atop the Mayo Clinic’s transplant list waiting for a liver.
Someone had to die for him to survive. His prospects grew dimmer as he waited.
Each day, 20 Americans die waiting to have an organ transplant. And according to the Health Resources and Services Administration there are more than 116,000 Americans on the national transplant list.
Not enough people have signed up to be organ donors.
For my brother, his situation was more dire than most. Not only did physicians need to find a good genetic match but also someone who had never had mononucleosis.
Danny had never had mono. Our mother, a registered nurse, drilled in us the importance of good hygiene. We never shared cups, lollipops or dishes with friends. And mono, a common infection, never came our way.
But this careful attention to cleanliness became a detriment. If Danny received an organ from someone who had been infected anytime in their life, he could have life-threatening complications.
So the potential donor pool was small. And all we could do was wait and pray.
I was at an investigative reporting conference in Atlanta when I received the early morning call.
It was my mother and she was crying.
Mom didn’t weep easily.
But that day her tears were happy ones.
A donor liver had come through.
A middle-aged woman in Rochester, Minnesota, had died of a brain aneurysm. Sometime earlier, she’d signed an organ donor card.
That small act saved my brother’s life.
On Father’s Day 2004, he began his path to recovery. With the gift of a new liver his yellowing skin returned to a healthy peach color. His weakened body regained energy.
But this isn’t an “and they lived happily ever after” story. I wish it were. Cancer began to grow in his transplanted liver and by December 2005, he was dead.
Still, some woman, whose name we will never know, gave him a year and a half that he never would have had.
My brother was not a man prone to much introspection. He was a farmer. Most things were black and white: crop yields, commodity prices, hog weights.
But when it came to the unknown woman who gave a part of herself to him, he became quiet and contemplative.
“I wonder what she was like. Did she have kids?” he said shortly before he died.
I wondered if her family missed her as much as I would miss Danny.
We do know this much about the woman: She cared enough to give.
April is organ donor month in Illinois.
Please consider being an organ donor.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. Email: ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.