Organ donation can save lives - Kathy Jefcoats

Last week, my family observed the sad first anniversary of the death of my sister-in-law. She was just 44 and her only child, Bryan, was about to turn 12. Her death at such a young age was tragic but came much later than it could have had it not been for a liver transplant.

April is National Donate Life Month, which promotes organ donation, something I have supported my whole life. I am an organ donor and encourage my husband and children – and anyone who will listen – to do the same. According to LifeLink, more than 1,500 Georgians are waiting for organs.

LifeLink officials say that one donor has the potential to help as many as 60 people so why don't more people donate organs? Some object on religious grounds, others object to being "taken apart" after death, still others just don't understand how important their gift of life can be to others. That's why I am writing about my sister-in-law.

Her name was Sheila. She and I went to high school together, long before I ever met my husband. Her brother, Ronnie, and I were friends, and their family lived next door to friends of ours from church. When I finished high school, I married and began a family. Ronnie and Sheila and I lost touch. Some years later, their names cropped up from a mutual friend and I got reacquainted with them and what they were doing.

Then I learned she and my husband's oldest brother were dating. She and I visited, talked about high school and pored over our yearbook to talk about who was doing what. She was sweet and somewhat quiet. They married and had a son. Just living a normal life like anyone else.

She saw her doctor for a regular annual checkup and he felt something wrong in her liver. She went for tests – lots of tests – and doctors determined she had liver cancer. I think she was 35. It was February. By August, her doctors told her if she didn't get a transplant soon, she'd be dead by Christmas.

Well, Bryan was just toddling around. It didn't seem possible or fair that he would be left without a mother. Sheila was on prayer lists all over Macon. I prayed for her and prayed hard that she would get a new liver and live to see Bryan grow up.

Of course, in the back of my mind was the knowledge that, for her to get a liver, someone would have to die. That's hard but that's reality.

That Labor Day weekend, the call came and she went to Atlanta for a transplant. The surgery was successful and she did great. I never knew anything about the donor and I never asked her about it. She didn't seem to want to talk about it at all, not to me. I think she was grateful to live and be able to get on with her life. She was working at YKK and was eager to get back to work. She did so great after surgery that the doctor almost allowed her to until her husband reminded him about all the lifting she had to do. He made her hold off a few more weeks, which she hated. I think she wanted for life to get back to normal and put that all behind her.

And that's what happened. She resumed a normal life as mother, wife, sister, daughter, hard worker, Christian. She enjoyed the next seven or so years, watching her son grow and the rest of the family expand with nieces and nephews. She kept up with periodic checkups and seemed to be doing great.

Then the cancer came back, but not in her liver. She started getting tumors all over her body. They affected her ability to walk and she had to quit working. Doctors discovered she was diabetic. She was on a downhill slide from which she never recovered. Hospital stays followed hospital stays. At Christmas 2001, she was able to walk with a cane. By the following January, she was paralyzed from the waist down and never walked again.

She spent most of December 2002 in the hospital. I had moved to Aiken by then but traveled to Macon every weekend that month to see her. Tumors affected her speech and ability to even make sense of things so I would just sit with her, watch television with her. There was really nothing else I could do.

That was the last time I saw her alive. She went home on Christmas Eve and stayed there. Hospice came and my mother-in-law, a nurse, stayed with her so Sheila's husband could continue working. She was bedridden and couldn't communicate. It was so sad, she was barely just existing.

She lasted until April 3, taking her last breath while our mother-in-law stood beside her.

So, she fought the good fight and lost but could have lost it long ago had someone not been an organ donor. Think about it. Think about what your gift could mean not only to the recipient but that recipient's family. It is the ultimate selfless act.

Contact www.lifelinkfound.org for more information.

Kathy Jefcoats is the public safety reporter for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or kjefcoats@henryherald.com.