Dec. 7 2015 02:29 PM

Inspiring and heartbreaking lessons from the world of organ and tissue donation

    I lost my grandma the day before Thanksgiving. She was the second grandma I lost this year. She was 82 years old. For the last few months of her life, she was so afflicted with osteoporosis that she couldn't stand straight, but it was kidney failure and congestive heart failure that ultimately did her in. Considering those factors, death was an end to her pain, but that makes it no less heartbreaking.

    The funeral is in Manti, Utah, which is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Salt Lake City. I drive with my two brothers. My older brother is studying for his Doctorate in Nurse Practice and our conversation turns, as it often does, to the insane things he's experienced working as a nurse. He begins telling us about his clinical studies at the medical examiner's office.


    A week before my grandma's death, I talked to Sharon Ross, director of public relations & development for Lifesharing—a federally designated nonprofit committed to organ and tissue donation services in San Diego and Imperial Counties.

    "I'm curious. What's your fascination with tissue donation?" she asked.

    Over the phone, Ross had a gentle and inviting voice. As this warmth is an asset, it's also a little disarming. In my attempts to gain access to San Diego's eye banks, morgues or body donation programs, I'm often met with side-eyed skepticism and coldness. When you have no angle, just an amateur curiosity about how the human body can be deconstructed, people tend to think you're morbid.

    And maybe they're right. A fraction of my interest is motivated by some deep-seated desire to test my thresholds. It's a tad embarrassing to admit, but a small part of me wants to squirm. I want to see blood and Styrofoam containers in the hopes of obtaining a better understanding of myself.

    I told Ross that I was just curious, that I had no angle in mind. Without thinking, I said, "If anything, it might just be a slice-of-life story." I stuttered, realizing my wording. "I mean..."

    "It's all right," Ross said. "Believe it or not, I have a sense of humor, too."


    "We saw a couple suicides," my brother says, describing his study at the medical examiner's office. "But the worst was this guy who put his head on the tracks in front of an oncoming train."

    He says the chin had remained intact—a relatively clean cut. Then he says the medical examiner held up a yellow biohazard bag. "The rest of him."


    In person, Sharon Ross was as warm as her voice. I know that it's part of her job to sell me on the benefits organ donation, but she's the type of maternal figure to whom I'd gladly hand over all my organs, regardless of occupation.

    On our way back to her office, we stopped at the photo quilts that decorate Lifesharingís hallway, meant to honor the donors whose deaths have extended the lives of others.

    Ross pointed to picture of a young woman. "This is Maria...She died very young of cancer. Many people who die of breast cancer assume they couldn't be a donor because of the cancer, but she was able to give sight to two people." She pointed to another picture of a young man who died while showing off for his sister by hot-dogging on an ATV. "I still play his aunt on Words With Friends," she said. "And she always beats me."

    Asked why some people opt out of organ donation, Ross said most people disqualify themselves based on illness, sexual orientation, lifestyle habits, etc.—none of which are valid.

    "People also don't want to say no to miracles," she said.


    "It was like one of those rubber stress dolls," my brother says, describing the remains in the yellow bag. "Like when you squeeze it and the eyes bulge out."

    Rubber stress dolls. It's something I never want to see.


    Ross peppered facts about donation throughout the tour: There are 12 million on the donor registry in California, but the state also has the longest wait list. Eighty-five percent of us can be tissue donors, but only 1 percent can donate organs due to the specific conditions one must die under (in the hospital, under ventilator support, not have injury to the area where organs are). The pancreas is the most fragile organ, but a new one will cure you of diabetes. Corneas donít age.

    But even if I wasn't a donor, Ross' stories would've convinced me. She's a natural storyteller, and she often achieves poetic poignancy without even realizing it. My initial hope for Styrofoam containers felt childish, for our two-hour conversation stirred my soul more than any sight of gore.

    "[The] first time I had a donor family that wanted to listen to their son's heart beat," she said. "Oh my God...Their son had gone into a routine surgery—there's no such thing as routine—and he passed away...

    "The mom was struggling but so wanted to meet the life her son had saved: A gentleman, aged forty, whose parents had both died of heart disease and who had two small kids.

    "His nurse had come with him and said to the [donor] family, 'would you like to hear your son's heart?' And dad grins and says yes. Mom recoils and says no. I realized the dad was holding the mom's hand, and Ryan, he was squeezing it to the heartbeat."

    Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to or follow him on Twitter at@theryanbradford


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