Sometimes, the death of one person can give new life to another. That reality took a very sudden and personal turn recently in the life of ideastream reporter David C. Barnett. Today David shares his story… and that of his brother.
Frank was dead. A person I had known and loved for 55 years was gone. And now, I faced the aftermath of that fact --- making funeral arrangements... filling out legal forms... and redistributing his personal possessions. But before all that, I had to deal with another immediate matter. Though my brother didn't leave a will, he did check that box on his driver's license application indicating that he wanted to be an organ donor. That was the subject of a phone call, I got within hours of his death.
SOUND: Phone rings
DAVID BARNETT (recording): Hi, this is David.
HANNAH MAGRUM (recording): Hi David, this is Hannah from Lifebanc.
Hannah Magrum works in the call center of the organ recovery organization known as Lifebanc. They saved a recording of our conversation.
HANNAH MAGRUM (recording): And just to confirm the spelling of your brother's name, against his driver's license, it's: Frank, F-R-A-N-K, Barnett, B-A-R-N-E-T-T?
DAVID BARNETT (recording): Correct
DCB: I imagine for many people, checking the organ donation box is an abstract way of being a Good Samaritan. It feels like a positive thing to do, but you're not so sure that you'll ever have to keep that promise --- at least, not for a long time. And loved ones may not even know your wishes.
HANNAH MAGRUM (recording): All these questions are just to the best of your knowledge, so you just do the best that you can. [FADES UNDER]
I recently met Hannah Magrum, in person, at the Cleveland-area Lifebanc offices, and we recalled our conversation on a late evening, last September.
HANNAH MAGRUM (in person): I remember pretty much everything about it. The impression I got was that was something that you wanted so badly.
I did. I had just lost my brother. I didn’t want that death to be meaningless. But, the clock was ticking.
HANNAH MAGRUM (in person): From the time someone passes away --- whether it was in a hospital, whether it was in a car accident --- whenever their heart stops, we have within a certain amount of time to make a first incision.
So, as Hannah coaxed information out of me and I racked my brain to recall my brother’s medical history, she also had to balance sensitivity with urgency.
HANNAH MAGRUM (in person): We have to have all that paperwork done within 18 hours to move forward --- 24 hours would be the worst case scenario. Sometimes that is the hardest thing.
A lot of lives can be at stake during this race against the clock. As call center supervisor Julie Caldro explains, we’re not just talking about a lung or a kidney that can be transplanted.
JULIE CALDRO: We recover the heart for valves, bone and connective tissue, which includes the muscles and tendons that connect those bones. We also recover veins, and those are used for patients who need bypass grafts.
All told, she says the tissue and organs of just one person can help between 50 and 70 people. Occasionally, recipients or relatives of donors want to meet each other. Recipients… to express thanks; donor relatives, like me…to learn who benefited from a donation. Mary LaRiccia helps arrange such meetings, but she says it's a delicate process.
MARY LARICCIA: Sometimes some donor families will say they just aren't ready to hear about their loved one's heart beating in someone else. On the recipient side, I've heard so many folks say, "I feel so guilty. I'm doing well and somebody died."
ELISSA BERMAN: It is hard. It's the hardest job I've ever had.
Elissa Berman heads Bereavement Services for Lifebanc. This is the organization's follow-up program…which maintains support groups on the east and west sides of Cleveland, and one in Akron. Berman's department will follow a donor or recipient family's progress for two years.
ELISSA BERMAN: Before this kind of work, I would read my e-mail and it would be kind of innocuous. Now, every morning when I read my e-mail, it's about: who died. You have the kind of obvious epiphany that no one gets out of this world alive. So then, you really start to think --- how do you spend your days?
HANNAH MAGRUM (3:09 a.m. recording): [phone rings, the she leaves message] Hi David, this is Hannah from Lifebanc. I do apologize for calling back so late. Our team's in the operating room, getting ready to recover on Frank.
Eric Mojzisik is part of the team that recovers organs and tissues from the donors. I asked him about my brother. He hesitated.
ERIC MOJZISIK: I'm very sorry. I've never spoken with a family member, so… It's hard to…uh…can we stop a second?
I turned the recorder off and he told me that I might not want to hear the details of the recovery process. I replied that I wasn't looking for a play-by-play from the operating room. I was just interested in finding something positive to hold onto. And then, he gave me that.
ERIC MOJZISIK: We performed a cardiectomy, which means we took heart for valves. We have patients who need valve replacements. We recovered the pericardium, which is the sac around the heart which can be used for brain surgery. We recovered tendons, which can be used for ACL tendon repairs. We recovered skin for burn victims, mastectomy repairs.
He then paused for a bit of reflection on his work.
ERIC MOJZISIK: You're making something good come out of something bad. It's your soul that's going to heaven, you're not taking your body with you. Leave it here for other people to use.
That sounds like something my brother, who was a Buddhist, would have said…on one of his better days. The day he died was not one of them. Frank, you see, took his own life. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand what he was feeling that day…why it came to that. His act of signing up to be a donor --- that I’m pretty sure was on one of his good days.
My brother was a diligent recycler. He'd smile when he saw a public park picnic table made from old pop bottles. If he could somehow know that someone got a recycled bone or tendon of his, or a piece of his heart --- I think that’d make him smile, too. I hope that someday I'll have the opportunity to meet someone who benefitted from my brother's untimely death. Maybe, I'll even get to see one of Frank's transplanted corneas looking back at me.