Gift of Life

By Oliver and Elizabeth Hedgepeth

There are special suppliers of life in our great country, from North Carolina to Virginia to Alaska. They are those hospitals that collect the basic raw material for giving life. They work with a network of donor service organizations across the United States. In Virginia, it is Donate Life Virginia. In North Carolina, it is Carolina Donor Services. In Alaska, it is Life Alaska Donor Services.

The raw material that comprises those supply items are you, me, anyone from 3 months old to 75 years old, so far in our experience. Yes, a 3-month-old can die of many causes — some accidents, others an incurable disease. But, that 3 month-old can give life and sight and other helpful body parts to others, as can that 75-year-old. The final person to receive such a gift is you, your wife, child, husband, mother, father, a teacher, a prisoner in jail — anyone and everyone.

There are more than 50 different parts of a person’s body that can be donated to help others live a better life. Those supply items are organs, corneas, tissues, hands and face, blood stem cells, cord blood, bone marrow, blood and platelets. The number of people given this gift of life exceeded 113,000 in 2019.

Real-life experience: We recently attended a Donor Family Tribute in Greenville, N.C. The sponsor of this event was Carolina Donor Services. The building was huge and looked like a country club. We were not sure if we were at the right place, and we even questioned why we should spend our Sunday afternoon there.

This nice-looking building clearly was a place to hold a special event. When we reached the register desk, we discovered our name was not on the list. We debated for three months after the invitation arrived whether we wanted to be around a group of people who lost their loved ones.

There was a meeting and dining area, much as you would expect at a professional conference. There was nice, light music playing in the background, the walls were black and there were quilts hanging all over the front of the room. The quilts had small 12-inch squares on them. It was obvious that the quilt was a remembrance of the ones who had died.

We sat at a table that had many place settings and chairs. We sat quietly for about 30 minutes, as around 200 people entered the room and took their seats. When the room filled, the talking was in whispers, as if we were in church waiting for a service to begin. We thought about quietly getting up and leaving. We did not fit in here.

The 200 people were a mix of races, ages and abilities. A spokesperson on stage invited all the guests to join the buffet line. We all did, and the group ate for about 30 minutes, again like a church social. Then it began.

The speaker asked if anyone would like to tell about a loved one who donated to help others live. Slowly, people — many of whom had never spoken in front of a group — walked to the microphone. One woman, smiling and happy with tears of joy running down her face, spoke about finding her 15-year-old son in his room at home, hanged. She described how it took three days for him to die of his suicide.

Then, she happily said his hand was being used by another young boy who had lost his in an accident — and how her son’s eyes would make another person see for the first time in years.

Another person shared the story of how a 3-month-old’s death from an incurable disease helped other life-threatened babies live. The sharing of stories went on for about three hours.

When we gathered to leave, we and those 200 people were all the same. We were friends, like long-lost relatives. There was no age or race or illness separating us. We all treated each other as the same.

People are waiting: When someone you love dies, grief memoirs seem the same. Being around those who also have lost someone and are grieving seems to be a logical connection. The topic of conversation is similar and shared. But the loss is still there for the person so loved. Something changed with this donor tribute.

The 200 or so people with their common loss encountered a gain. Many of them know the person who has received a new hand, or can see, or can talk for the first time in years. Knowing that their loved one is still alive in a small part of someone else, maybe even the heart itself, gives comfort to us who have been left with such grief in the past.

The donor process of giving was not around when our parents died. If it had been, our visits to the gravesites would hold a little more light of happiness, knowing someone was walking around on a farm or in an office with our loved one’s heart or arteries or hands.

Donate Life Virginia is a small part of life-giving across all of America. Please, donate in your state when your time comes. We are.

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Oliver Hedgepeth is professor of logistics for the American Military University. Elizabeth Hedgepeth is former managing editor of the Petersburg Progress-Index. Contact them at: blh4835@gmail.com

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