My father had three baby barns and a basement full of stuff. It’d be easy to call it junk and we certainly mocked him for it when he was alive but his death taught me a lesson about all the stuff he kept around. Tools, computers, spare parts to just about everything.
What was he doing with all this stuff? I realize now he was anticipating the frantic Saturday morning phone call from a brother, a crew member, or even a a son looking for one small thing. He always had the right stuff and the thought of throwing something out only to have someone ask for it later kept him from getting rid of a lot of what the rest of us would toss.
But that was Dad. If he had it, it was yours. He was a fixer. Cars, computers, appliances, midnight calls about overflowing toilets and stubborn washers. He had the parts and he took care of things.
I parked the car sideways by the emergency door and ran around the corner. I could see my mother standing on the inside of the automatic doors rubbing her palm up and down her thigh as she was bent over in pain and worry. When she spotted me her face lit with a sad relief. She said we were losing Da that day. The words hit me like a wall because I didn’t know what was happening. Not twenty minutes earlier I was sitting in my office at the radio station waiting for a pot of coffee to finish. Now I was hearing this and I had no idea where my father was or what had happened.
Within minutes we were in a small waiting room between the emergency doors. The room was crammed with chairs, and a small corner table with a yellow hospital phone. The table was stacked with Readers Digests. Michael Jordan was on the cover of the one on top. The doctor didn’t look at me but I searched his face for a sign. Before he could speak the nurse that was sitting next to him reached out and touched my knee. As she folded in her bottom lip I knew. If my father was still alive this stranger wouldn’t be touching me.
Dad had died at the side of the house, putting in a new basement window on his junk room. He was with his crew. His last words, which I will always find hilariously appropriate were “Jesus, will you look at the mess in there.”
Before the doctor left the room my mother told them Da was an organ and tissue donor. It was a conversation we had together years earlier while filling out our Health Card renewals at the kitchen table. Standing there with my mother it occurred to me how perfect a final gesture this would be for Da. An anonymous gift to someone in need. It was how he lived, and it’s how he will be remembered.
This week is National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week, so if you haven’t thought about it before now is a great time. The question is part of all end-of-life situations now, so, when the time comes you’re going to be asked the question. You’ll feel a whole lot better about your answer if you know the wishes of the people around you, and you make sure they know yours.
Organ donations can immediately help six people, and here in Nova Scotia there is a waiting list of 140 . Tissue donations can be stored for up to five years and help up to fifty patients.
On May 15th, which would have been Da’s 58th birthday, my family will travel to Halifax to be part of the annual Gift of Life ceremony hosted by the Legacy of Life Foundation. Dad will be honored, along with other donors who changed the lives of those in need in 2010.
You don’t meet the people who benefit from the donation, but you do get to hear about how the donation was used. Someone in Nova Scotia has improved sight because of Da’s donation. Burn victims will be benefiting from his tissue cells for years to come. Some patients undergoing hip replacement surgery will benefit from cartilage doctors inject during surgery. Accident victims and emergency reconstructive surgery patients benefited from his bones, and many more may still.
As we were leaving the hospital that day the nurse told me to expect a call from a Donation Coordinator in Halifax within the hour. Just as the house was starting to fill with family who were hearing the news the phone rang. The coordinator explained the process to me. He had already dispatched a team from Halifax who were traveling to Sydney. Dad’s body was being sent to the Regional Hospital where the team had booked an operating room for the procedure, and they wouldn’t really know what was useable until they examined him. Dad’s heart attack that day and the medications he was already on kept his organs from being useable, but they’d be able to use his tissue and bone.
Then he told me that he had a survey of questions that he had to ask my mother, and that it would take about forty-five minutes. This was the most difficult part of the entire donation process. I couldn’t do this for Ma. It had to be the spouse because of the nature of the questions. And I won’t lie – they were difficult given that Da had just died, and people were pouring into the house, but we knew it was a necessary step in the screening process, and we knew it was what Da wanted.
So, once Ma answered all of the questions – including those about whether my father had ever had sex with another man, contracted an STD, or tested positive for HIV, it was over.
Then I got nervous. I went to the funeral home to make the initial arrangements and was terrified that we wouldn’t be able to have an open casket, which would have been difficult for some family who didn’t see him at the hospital after he died. Or worse. What if he just didn’t look like himself in the casket at the wake?
The worry was for nothing. He died Thursday at noon, and ordinarily he could have been waked as soon as the next day. The donation process, and a partial autopsy to confirm the cause of death, slowed that down. He was waked, open casket, on Monday. Funeral and cremation on Tuesday. His ashes were buried on Wednesday.
There are few positive things that come out of a loss like this, but the awareness that his decision has brought to our family about this issue has been tremendous.
The most remarkable thing has been how his decision to donate helps with the grief. It feels good to know some good came out of the loss.
This week the Cape Breton District Health Authority released the numbers for the last three years and there is real progress being made but there’s more for us all to do. Dad was one of twenty tissue donors last year, and there was just one organ donor.
My only regret is that they couldn’t use his heart, because they just don’t make them like that anymore.
Call 1-800-563-8880 or visit http://www.legacyoflife.ns.ca to become a donor, or learn more, and talk to your family about your wishes.