By Colette Hanlon
Having been a hospital chaplain for many years, I have lots of stories to share. But the most powerful one occurred in the early 1980s and was the first time I was involved in a total organ/tissue donation.
In the large hospital in Wisconsin where I served as director of pastoral care, it was a relatively quiet night until an emergency call arrived from a small hospital in our system. A young college student told his roommate he was hot, stood up, and fell to the floor. The emergency ambulance immediately brought “Shane” across the miles to us. His prognosis was very grim.
His parents – a Protestant minister and his wife who had recently accepted a call to serve in northern Wisconsin – were notified and arrived a couple of hours later. Dad immediately headed two hours south to pick up their daughter at college and bring her back. I remained with Mom for the next few hours and learned about her family. Shane was a much loved son and his mother struggled with the possibility of losing him.
However, with a halting voice she said to me, “Another mother loved him enough to bring him to birth, so I should share him with others, as she did.” She then went on to tell me how her daughter and son were both adopted and were gifts of their birth mothers to them.
Shane, a previously healthy 19-year-old with a massive cerebral event, was eminently able to be a donor. Tests over the next hours showed that there was no hope of any recovery from the brain damage. The medical staff coordinated events once Dad, Mom, and his sister all agreed he would want to be a donor.
Previously, I hadn’t known how many organs and tissues were eligible for donation. Jets flew in from Pittsburgh and Chicago to accept the donation of his heart, lungs, kidneys, corneas, and long bones from his arms and legs. His jaw went to a man whose face was destroyed in a work accident.
The hospital staff had never been present for such a full donation, and some were shocked and questioning. Sharing with them Shane’s mother’s words to me helped them to understand and appreciate her generosity.
Later, Shane’s mother taught me another valuable lesson. Once I received word about the organs given to others, I called her. I began by saying “Because of your family’s gifts, many organs and tissues were harvested.” After a long pause, she quietly explained to me that as a farm girl, “harvesting” connoted a violent pulling up of crops. She did not want to equate that with the reverent removal of Shane’s organs and tissues so others could live.
Since then, any time I am speaking with family members about their generous gift of life, I say the transplant team gratefully accepted the donation of their loved one’s body.
How much we learn from those we encounter in our ministry of pastoral care!
Sr. Colette Hanlon, S.C., is provincial councilor for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg, PA.