By Dr. Rob Cirone
As an attending physician in the ICU at St. Joe’s, I have provided end of life care for many patients. Although all of them were tragic in their own way, often there was a sense of relief because it meant an end to the suffering that many of these patients had endured. More often than not, this was a natural end to a life well lived. As we reflect this month on the significance of organ and tissue donation, I think about one patient whose story has stayed with me and epitomizes what organ donation means to me.
The patient was a strapping and healthy young man, just barely into his twenties. He reminded me a lot of my own son. He was the victim of an accidental overdose that eventually led to his being declared brain-dead. I did my best to gently explain to his parents, siblings and girlfriend what had happened — that the vibrant and energetic young man with his whole life in front of him had ceased to be, that he was never going to recover and they wouldn’t even have the chance to say goodbye. I watched as his parents and family struggled with the news as they wondered what their life would be like without him in it. I listened as his mother described him as a happy and energetic little boy. I watched a stream of tearful friends come to say their last goodbyes. For many of them, this was the first time death had touched their lives.
I felt helpless and useless.
Then something happened that I will never forget. Before the ICU team could activate the consultation process to Trillium Gift of Life, this young man’s mother approached me about potentially donating his organs. She knew that he had always supported organ donation and felt strongly that he should be a donor if he had the opportunity. This had been important to him in life — to be able to help someone else in dire need, if he could, when he had passed on into death. I was humbled by the courage that this family showed; they had reached beyond their grief and summoned the strength required to honour this commitment. They told me that if they didn’t do this, they would regret it forever and that this might help to assuage their heartache and help them come to terms with his tragic death; his kind heart (and his other organs) would help someone else to continue to live and love, and this act might provide them some comfort going forward. To me it was a profound act of love.
This is what organ donation means to me. We often hear stories of the brave recipients and their struggles with their illness. But it’s important that we also take a moment to recognize that for every successful organ donation there was a brave and unselfish family that didn’t get a happy ending. They are left behind with only memories, and the knowledge that a little good came out of these horrible experiences and they were strong enough, in that vulnerable time, to help make those good things happen.
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