By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
At Mercy Hospital Joplin, nurse Christina Leggett wears a plastic, lime green bracelet and hopes someone will ask about it.
The bracelet says “Donate Life.”
“I have lots and lots of them, and I wear each one until I find someone to give it to or until it falls apart,” Leggett said. “It’s a great way to be able to tell my story.”
That story is both heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and it’s one she will tell in full at tonight’s Celebration of Life ceremony in Joplin.
Leggett’s sister, Teresa Kemp, 41, and her niece, Taylor Kemp, 13, of Pittsburg, Kan., were killed in 2009 when their car was hit by a vehicle operated by a drunken driver who was fleeing police.
“Taylor was pronounced dead at the scene; Teresa died six days later in the hospital after being declared brain dead,” Leggett said. “But we knew, the type of giving, loving people they were, that they would want us to donate their organs. Teresa had it on her driver’s license, and Taylor said at age 4 that she wanted to donate her hair to Locks of Love.”
Organs donated by Teresa and Taylor Kemp benefited the lives of more than 50 people, according to hospital officials.
While Leggett knows what it’s like for family members to be on the giving end, Linda Dean, a 30-year employee of Freeman Health System, knows what it’s like for a family to be on the receiving end of organ donations.
She had been married to Joe Dean just three months when he became ill. She was 18; he was 22. Lab work showed he was in renal failure; he had only one functioning kidney as the other one never developed.
“We grew up quickly,” Linda Dean recalled.
Joe Dean’s father donated one of his kidneys, but the transplanted organ was rejected almost immediately and Joe Dean was back at square one.
That was 1972. Three years later, he got another call.
“A kidney from someone he did not know, a young boy in a motorcycle accident on Easter 1975,” Linda Dean said. “That gift gave us a life.”
The Deans went on to attend college and have two sons, Seth and Matthew, now adults. Joe Dean was able to work, tackle honey-dos, play with his sons — all the normal husband and dad things, Linda Dean said — until his death seven years ago.
“Every day you think about it, that someone would have the wherewithal to agree to organ donation in their time of grief,” Linda Dean said. “You pray for those people the rest of your life.”
Since the first successful organ transplant in 1954 in Boston — 23-year-old Richard Herrick received a kidney from his twin brother, Ronald — surgeons have learned how to transplant many of the human body’s vital organs, as well as tissue such as skin and nonvital body parts.
“One donor can save eight lives,” said Cathy Lucchi, hospital services coordinator with the Midwest Transplant Network. “With organs and tissue together, one donor can impact 50 people’s lives.”
Tissue is the most common transplant, and more people are able to donate it than vital organs. About 1 million people nationwide benefit from tissue transplants every year. About 46,000 eye transplants are done every year for patients who have ocular injuries or keratoconus.
“These are life-changing, life-transforming transplants,” Lucchi said. “If you’re facing leg amputation and you receive needed tissue, or you can’t see and get the gift of sight, that’s life-transforming.”
Between January 2011 and March of this year, the lives of 61 patients at Freeman Health System and Mercy Hospital Joplin were saved by organ donations, Lucchi said. Since January 2011, about 2,300 lives across the country have been affected by tissue donations from patients at the two hospitals, and 128 individuals have received the gift of sight.
But the list of those needing organs keeps growing; 113,000 people nationwide are waiting for organ transplants. Eleven names are added to the list every minute. Eighteen people die every day while waiting.
“That number keeps going up,” Lucchi said.
Want to register?
On July 1, 2010, all states became first-person registry states, which means a person may give full authorization to donate organs at the end of life. Registration may be completed in a matter of minutes online at donatelifemissouri.com or donatelifekansas.com. Other states follow similar formats and can be accessed at donatelife.net.
“In the midst of tragedy and a family’s grief, they don’t have to make a final decision; it’s already been made,” Lucchi said.
Linda Dean said that every time she looks at her children and recalls her life with her husband, she is thankful for the decision made by the family of the unidentified motorcycle accident victim.
“It means something good has come from something bad,” she said. “The death of their loved one has given someone a life or improved the quality of life. It puts a positive spin on an otherwise very sad thing. It doesn’t lessen your sadness and grief, but it does give you another focus.”
Celebration of Life
THE CELEBRATION OF LIFE will begin at 6 p.m. today at the Freeman Business Center, 3220 S. McClelland Blvd. Organizers say it will provide an opportunity to honor those whose deaths gave life to others, as well as a platform for recipients to express their gratitude. All who have been affected by the gift of organ, eye or tissue donations may attend.