Monday, March 22, 2010

Organ Donation: The Gift of Life

When my first wife Sue passed away in 2001, I honored her wishes to donate her organs. Following is an excerpt from the book (unpublished) I wrote in the months following her death. I titled the book, Let Her Works Praise Her: A Life that Counted, ©Copyright January 2002. This is taken from Chapter 3, “Giving, Even in Death.”

Sue spent her life giving to others. She determined a long time ago that there was no reason to stop giving if her earthly life ended while she was still young enough that someone else could use her organs. Her thinking was “I won’t need them anymore.” Accordingly, she signed a donor card and placed it on the back of her driver’s license. She specified that the organs would be used for transplant only – not research.

I did not realize that even if someone signs a donor card, the family can overrule the wishes of the person who has died. I would never have considered not carrying out her wishes, so I did not hesitate to sign the papers that were necessary for the organ transplant process to begin. This was the first thing I had to take care of after I was informed that she had passed away, and even though paperwork was the last thing I wanted to deal with at that time, I fully understood that time was of the essence…

I never before really knew anything about the process of organ transplantation and all the logistics that go with it. Prospective recipients are required to always be within two hours of the appropriate hospital. As soon as the papers are signed, the whole process swings into action. Tissue-typing is done, and appropriate recipients are admitted to their hospitals, a surgical room in the donor’s hospital must be made available, and teams of doctors are flown in. It makes good sense, but it was a new revelation to me that the doctors who are scheduled to implant the organs are the same ones who are flown in to take the organs from the donor. That is a most logical procedure, but it is the kind of thing one never thinks about until it becomes a reality.

All of this takes time. Sue’s body was kept functioning for twenty-eight hours after her death in order to incubate the organs. During that time – from Friday at 12:55 P.M. until late Saturday afternoon – she was kept in the Neuro-CCU unit...

Late on Saturday night, I received a call at the motel from the transplant nurse. She informed me that the surgery was over and gave me a general rundown of where the organs had gone and who, in general terms, would receive them. One team of doctors had come from USC Medical Center, another from Stanford Medical Center, and at least one more came from somewhere in Wisconsin.

About four weeks later, I received the following letter from the California Transplant Donor Network:

Dear Mr. Livesay:

I would like to express my deepest sympathy to you and your family for the loss of your wife, Susan. I can only imagine how difficult these last few weeks have been for you and your family. My hope is that your decision to help others, through donation, can bring a sense of peace and comfort to each of you. I would like to share with you the outcome of your generous gift.

A 60 year-old woman from the San Diego area had suffered from chronic lung disease and had been waiting for a lung transplant for over a year and a half. She is a widowed mother of two daughters, and her disease had left her disabled. Both of Susan’s lungs were able to be transplanted into this woman, and her condition after surgery was listed as good.

Susan’s liver was successfully transplanted into a 57 year-old man from the San Francisco area. He works as a computer analyst, is married, and has one daughter. He had suffered from liver disease for several years, and had been waiting for a new liver since June of 1997. Thanks to Susan’s generous gift of life, his wait is now over. He was reported to have good liver function after his surgery.

Two fortunate people were the recipients of Susan’s kidneys. The right kidney was transplanted into a 58 year-old woman from Central California who had been on the waiting list since April of 1990. She is married and has no children. The kidney was a little slow to “wake up” after surgery, but it’s function is expected to improve.

A 53 year-old man had been waiting for a second chance since July of 1998. His kidneys had been damaged due to diabetes, and this made working as a foundry supervisor difficult. He is married and lives in the state of Wisconsin, and is reportedly doing well after his transplant.

As we discussed in the hospital, Susan’s pancreas and heart were not able to be transplanted due to her age and decreased organ function. However, her left cornea was transplanted into a 74 year-old woman from the San Francisco Bay Area. The right cornea was not able to be transplanted.

As you can see, your family’s decision for organ donation has touched the lives of many ill and dying patients, as well as their families. On their behalf, please accept our condolences as well as our gratitude for these most humanitarian gifts…


____ ________, RN, Transplant Coordinator

There is a certain good feeling that comes from knowing that some of Sue’s organs live on in the bodies of others, improving the quality of their lives. I also have to admit that there is a certain strange feeling about it. She is gone, but parts of her physical body live on. I pray the Lord will not only use these transplanted organs to improve the lives of the recipients but that each and every recipient will come to know the Lord Jesus Christ through this experience if they do not already know Him.

Although the letter implied that the decision to donate these organs was mine and the family’s, in reality, it was not my gift to these people – it was her gift, and ultimately it was the Lord’s gift. Sue would not have had it any other way, and I would certainly not have denied her the privilege of giving this gift.

In so many ways, what was true of Abel is also true of Sue. Abel continued to have a positive testimony after his death. “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Sue is still giving today in many ways, and this is a very specific way as her organs give improved quality of life and health to others.

A couple of years later, I was contacted by the recipient of Sue’s liver. This was not a simple process, because all such contacts must go through the California Transplant Donor Network. At first there is no direct contact, and the donor network gets permission from the other party before contact is allowed.

The man who received her liver was a retired military officer and a decorated war hero. He was genuinely appreciative of the gift of life, and quality of life, that Sue had given him. He made it a tradition to contact me each year on the anniversary of Sue’s death, and I very much appreciated that. When that did not happen last summer, I wondered why, but I got busy with other things and neglected to try and contact him. A few days ago, I sent him an email, and I was saddened to receive the following email from his wife:

Hi Mr. Livesay:

It's with great sorrow that I have to tell you that my husband Clark passed away last February. I tried to contact you, but I could not locate your e-mail address. I was hoping that you would write Clark one day.

It was the saddest day of my life when he died. We were married for 44 years and had a great life together. He was in the hospital at Stanford for two weeks. The doctors tried everything possible to save him, but at the end it was not enough. They even put him on the list for another liver transplant. Eventually all his organs shut down and there was nothing else they could do for him.

I want to thank you for the extra eight wonderful years we had due to your generosity. He appreciated every minute he was given and he did a lot of good.



In a later email she said, "Clark was such an inspiration to many people. A decorated war veteran, he never once complained about his fate in life. He insisted on looking ahead and making every day count. I have accepted his death, however, my heart will be broken forever.”

I could only wish that Sue’s liver would have lasted longer for him, but as we all know, life is very uncertain from day to day, and we can thank the Lord for what we have been given. I regret never having met him face to face, but there is certainly nothing we can do to change the past. It is a blessing to know that he, his wife, and the rest of his family were blessed by Sue's gift.

This experience leads me to encourage everyone, young or old, to become organ donors. Very many people die waiting for organs that never become available. While we recognize that God is ultimately in control, it is wise to make ourselves available to Him in every way possible. Being an organ donor can certainly be a blessing, not only to the recipients, but also to the donor’s family.