Organ and tissue donor lives on in others
HUDSON -- Jim and Peggy Shoemaker of Hudson have lived the nightmare all parents fear -- the sudden and traumatic death of one of their children. They lost their 20-year-old daughter, Anna, in January 2011 as the result of a car accident in northern Wisconsin.
But it is what Anna did before her death that has helped the family deal with their terrible loss.
Anna Shoemaker was an organ donor. Her parents weren't aware that she was until they arrived at the hospital in Duluth where Anna was airlifted after the accident. They were approached by representatives of Life Source, an organization that manages organ and tissue donation, shortly after learning that Anna would not survive her injuries.
Jim Shoemaker said they confirmed that Anna wanted to be a donor when they found her driver's license in her purse.
"We probably would have considered donating her organs anyway, but it was good to know that that was what she wanted too," said her father.
The Shoemakers said the people from Life Source clearly explained the process to them and led them through it with compassion and care. They answered a whole barrage of questions about Anna's health and lifestyle and their own, and where she had travelled.
After saying goodbye to their daughter, the couple returned to Hudson. Life Source kept them informed along the way as Anna's organs and tissue were recovered by six separate transplant teams that speeded them to patients who needed them across the region.
Anna's donations included her heart, a lung (her second lung was bruised in the accident), her kidneys, liver, intestines, pancreas and corneas. She also donated skin, bone and other tissue.
In November 2011, the family received an update from Life Source on the people who had received Anna's donations. All were doing well. The man who received her heart was in good health and had returned to his regular home life and to his job. The woman who received her pancreas was also healthy again, and the young girl who received her kidney was growing fast, catching up with her twin sister and doing well in school. The teenage girl who received her other kidney is able to live the life of a normal teenager.
Life Source provides a process for donor families and recipients to communicate with one another if they wish. After the passage of time, the Shoemakers felt ready to write a letter about Anna that would be sent to the recipients.
"We told them about Anna, the kind of person she was and how she had lived. We have been told that sometimes recipients feel guilt at having received this chance at life because someone else has died. We wanted them to know that her donations gave Anna's death some larger purpose and meaning," Peggy said. They also sent along pictures and stories about her.
They have received a couple of cards and letters and even a Christmas gift from one recipient, but they recently have arranged to meet the man who got Anna's lung.
They have learned that Tom was diagnosed with a rare, incurable lung disease and that he had been on the waiting list for a transplant for four years. A previous transplant had been unsuccessful. He experienced some ups and downs following the transplant of Anna's lung, but on the day he got a clean bill of health, he received the Shoemakers' letter about Anna.
"He referred us to his Caring Bridge site, and we read everything he and his family had been through and especially their excitement when they learned he would be getting Anna's lung," Peg said.
They have also learned that because of his experience while in the hospital, he was asked to testify about patients' rights before the U.S. Senate.
"That is totally the best. She would love that. I like to think it is her spirit coming through. It's a connection to her that we cherish," Peg said.
Said Jim, "Whatever is supposed to happen when we meet, will. I look forward to just listening to him breathe."
The Shoemakers say learning to live without their daughter is a work in progress. Jim describes it this way.
"It is like walking down a very dark path and every couple of steps you fall into a deep hole you have to struggle to get out of. But as time goes on, the holes get farther apart and not so deep. But it is still unbelievable and anything can be a reminder. It is always there -- a sharp deep ache."
Peg says it takes energy to grieve -- a lot of it -- and everyone does it at his or her own pace. "You have got to take the time to process what has happened. We have gotten counseling together and that has been a huge help. It just takes time."
The Shoemakers say they have been touched by the number of lives Anna affected in her short 20 years. The spring after her death, the University of Wisconsin-Madison awarded her a bachelor's degree posthumously. A student she tutored in high school talked about how she affected his life in his speech at his college graduation.
Jim regularly speaks to students in the driver's education classes at Hudson High School about Anna and organ donation. Peg, the principal at Willow River Elementary and soon to take over that job at HHS, says her work with children reminds her of the preciousness of life and being around them has helped her heal.
The family recently celebrated the marriage of Anna's brother Andrew, who lives in Chicago with his new wife. They believe Anna was with them there in spirit.
The family has also found unique ways to honor her spirit and her memory. A 20-year-old Anna had done her share of travelling and led a full life, seizing every day. Peg and Jim plan "adventures" every year -- something Anna would have liked. This year it was kayaking in the Everglades.
When friends or family members travel, they send a piece of Anna's jewelry with them and ask them to leave it somewhere they loved. The destinations have included Norway, Spain, even Africa.
The Shoemakers just recently cleaned out and repainted Anna's room. It is now her father's office, but her closet, highly organized the way she liked it, is still full of Anna, just like the lives of the people who loved her best.
For more information about organ and tissue donation, visit www.life-source.org or call (888) 5-DONATE.