Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Gift So Precious

Sixteen years ago this month, a tragedy occurred in San Antonio.  A van carrying students to a football game overturned.  Fifteen-year-old Jessica suffered severe head trauma and was declared brain dead.

That night Jessica's mother agonized over the decision to discontinue life support and let her daughter go.  She envisioned a thousand mothers sitting beside their children's hospital beds, agonizing as she was, but with one important difference:  whereas she had no hope that Jessica would recover, these mothers could save their children, if donated organs could be found.

That vision enabled Jessica's parents to give the ultimate gift--the donation of their daughter's organs.

After hearing about the accident on the radio, the next day I received a call that a cornea was waiting for me.  I couldn't help but wonder if the cornea came from one of the students in that accident, so much so that I became ill upon arriving at the eye surgical center in San Antonio; I felt unreasonable guilt that a young person had to die in order for sight to be restored in my diseased eye.

Because I had to be awake for the procedure, I was able to see when the old cornea was cut away, revealing a perfect circle of light.  I even saw the new cornea held by forceps as the surgeon placed it on my eye, and I could discern the curved needle as it sewed this precious gift into place.  The next morning I could see the large "E" on the vision chart, something I hadn't been able to do in a long time!

After my recovery I visited the San Antonio Eye Bank and learned about the procedure for organ donation, from the original contact by a nurse trained to approach suffering families to the methods of organ procuration and storage.  I looked under the microscope to see how corneal cells were counted to make sure they were viable for transplant.  All of this was interesting, but it didn't help my lingering guilt.

Then a woman at the eye bank told me about an upcoming "reunion" for donor families.  They were going to plant a tree in memory of their loved ones.  A few would speak to the crowd.  She asked if I would be willing to tell my story.

When I arrived at the reunion, I was seated next to Jessica's mother, who was scheduled to speak just before me.  I told her about receiving the call for the cornea right after the accident.  She hugged me and said it made her happy to think that because of Jessica, a mother like me could see her own child clearly.

Then she got up to tell her story.  Though tears ran down her face, her voice was clear and strong.  She said she believed her decision, although more painful than she could ever have imagined, was the right one, one that would have pleased the unselfish Jessica.

I was so choked up listening to this brave woman, I wasn't sure I could speak.  I'd planned to read from notes, but as I looked into the faces of these bereaved people, I spoke from the heart.  I explained that I had an eye disease for which there was no cure.  I talked about my first transplant, at the age of four, and how the disease had eaten through that cornea, too.  I even told them about how I'd put off this second transplant for so long because I felt guilty, and how I still had those feelings.

By the end, when I thanked them all for the wonderful gift they'd given, I told them that every day, when I looked through my clear, beautiful cornea, I remembered a mother's sacrifice and held her and her child in my heart.  Then I started crying, too.

Afterwards, total strangers came up and hugged me, telling me I should never feel guilty.  By donating their loved one's organs, it helped their grief, knowing someone's sight was improved, or a liver or kidney had saved another life.  By that they felt their lost one's death was not in vain.  It gave them comfort.

And finally, I began to find comfort, too.

Although I later found out I didn't have Jessica's cornea, but that of a seventeen-year-old boy, I will hold both of these young people in my heart for as long as I live.  I will never forget their courageous parents for giving me and others a gift so precious that there are no words sufficient to say thank you.


  1. What a beautiful story and lesson to us all. Thanks for sharing and making us all more aware of the feelings both donors and recipients of organs go through.

    1. Thanks, Diana. I only wish I could make opportunities to reach more people. For a while one of Jessica's friends made it her mission to educate people about organ donation, and I went with her a few times to speak to groups, but then she went to college and I lost touch with her.