The Greatest Gift You Can Give: A Second Chance at Life
In the dead of night, when everyone is asleep, the sky is dark, the moon is bright and silence fills the air for a calm and peaceful break from reality. But then the phone rings.
Some might consider being wrenched from sleep by a phone call a terrifying experience. But for others, it’s a welcome jolt from their slumber.
The 125,000 people currently on the national organ transplant list are waiting for that phone to ring in the middle of the night and rouse them from their beds.
“One of the most profound statements I heard anybody on the waiting list say is that they want a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Cynthia Gerdik, division director for the Emergency Department at UF Health Jacksonville. “Most people don’t want a call in the middle of the night. That really spoke volumes to me.”
That much-awaited call could change a person’s life. Or save it. This past year at UF Health Jacksonville, 34 patients gave the gift of life — a difficult but beautiful decision that saved the lives of 96 people in the Jacksonville community.
April is National Donate Life Month, a time when the organ and tissue donation and transplantation community focuses on educating Americans about ongoing critical shortages and reminds them of the importance of one’s own donation decision.
To highlight National Donate Life Month, UF Health Jacksonville held a ceremony to honor donors on April 27 in the LRC Auditorium. After the ceremony, family and friends of those who became organ donors traveled across campus to view the Tree of Life in the East Expansion of the Clinical Center. The tree
Man’s Best Friend
The decision to give the gift of life is never easy. One way the hospital staff acknowledges the families is with a purple blanket commemorating their loved one. This tradition began in 2007 with the formation of the Donor Council, a group that focuses its efforts on education and awareness as well as patient and family support. When a donor is taken off life support, the nurses who have continuously cared for the person lay a purple blanket on them signifying their passing.
“With every individual who becomes a donor here, we honor them and give the families something they can take home,” Gerdik explained.
This blanket is intended to provide some small comfort to the families because it’s the last item to touch their loved ones before going into surgery.
A few years ago, the family of an elderly gentlemen decided to take him off life support and donate his organs. As the son prepared for this, he knew who his father would want with him during his final moments — his beloved dog, Barney.
Gerdik received a phone call over the weekend from a charge nurse asking if they could bring the dog into the surgical intensive care unit. The request isn’t typical, but after hearing the reason behind it, she agreed.
The son brought the dog to the hospital so he could be there for his owner’s final breaths. The purple blanket was placed on the patient, the ventilator was turned off and the man peacefully passed away with Barney right beside him.
A few weeks later, Gerdik received a letter from the man’s son thanking them for allowing him to bring Barney into the hospital because the dog was the man’s family — like another son. He wrote that the purple blanket now belonged to Barney, and it was where the dog slept every night as it still smelled faintly of his much-loved owner.
“We had no idea that this blanket would be so significant to families, but it’s the last thing that touches the patient as they make their end-of-life journey and this one still had his special smell on it,” Gerdik said.
The Symbol of Honor
Another way UF Health Jacksonville honors those patients who become organ donors is by flying the Donate Life flag outside the Clinical Center for three days following a patient’s passing.
This flag is also meaningful to the families. When loved ones are told of this gesture, they will often gather around the flag while their family member is taken into the final surgery.
Three years ago, a couple was on their way back from their wedding at Disney World when they were involved in a life-changing car crash. The groom suffered a traumatic head injury and was pronounced brain dead soon after. Responders transported the couple to UF Health Jacksonville, where they stabilized the man and put him on a ventilator. The bride was rushed into surgery to repair her two badly broken legs.
Once out of surgery, the woman was told that her husband had passed and his parents chose to donate his organs. A flag would fly outside the hospital in his honor. Not long after, Gerdik received a call from the family asking if they could have the flag to lay atop the casket at the funeral. They found comfort in the presence of the Donate Life flag, and it was important to the family as it represented the gift their son and husband had given.
“They sent a card to us with a picture of the flag draped over the coffin,” Gerdik said. “So it was really meaningful for them to have that flag.”
Not only do these gestures commemorate this decision, they can also serve as a reminder that organ donation — although heartbreaking — has the ability to change lives.
Receiving the Greatest Gift
Anxious she might miss the call, Alice Weiss triple-checked her pager to make sure it was working, as the small device could bring her life-changing news. Waiting for a kidney transplant was no easy task.
“It was exciting, but it was anxiety-provoking,” she explained. “You couldn’t be thinking about it all the time. But I always wanted to make sure that everything was set up so there was no mishap in communication.”
Weiss was 35 when she was diagnosed with kidney disease — a complication from lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. In 1988, her nephrologist went over the treatment plan, promising they would try an array of regimens, though there was a chance she would ultimately end up on dialysis and need a kidney transplant.
Weiss was adamant she wouldn’t need a transplant. “No, I won’t,” she remembered telling the physician. “I was in total denial.”
After ignoring the pain for some time, Weiss realized the kidney disease was progressing. She was put on dialysis in September 1989 and placed on the transplant list the next month. Over the next seven months, Weiss continued to work as a nurse even though she had dialysis four hours a day, three days a week.
In June 1990, Weiss received the call. She and her family traveled to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where surgeons performed Weiss’ kidney transplant.
“The transplant has given me a pretty much normal life,” Weiss said. “It really gives you wings to lead a normal life and be there in a real way and contribute.”
Weiss thrived after the transplant. She was able to take care of her children, travel and continue working. She had her life back.
Twelve years later, her kidney function gradually started to decrease, and she ultimately went into long-term kidney rejection. In 2002, Weiss was put back on dialysis and added to the transplant list for a second time. After another seven months of waiting, the call came again.
Weiss received her second kidney in June 2003. Thirteen years later, the second kidney still functions very well and Weiss is incredibly grateful for the opportunities these transplants have given her.
“Organ donation saved my life,” she said. “I’ve been able to be there for my family, contribute to the community, pull my own weight, lead a normal life and pursue my dreams.”
Weiss is now a performance improvement specialist at UF Health Jacksonville and a member of the Donor Council. Although she cannot be a donor herself, she is an advocate for those who are.
Working Hard to Donate Life
Transforming tragedies into blessings has been an ongoing process for the Donor Council at UF Health Jacksonville. When Gerdik started the council in 2007, she had no idea how it would flourish. The Tree of Life Ceremony is only a small part of the council’s mission.
Weiss explained that the council does a lot of good work to ensure the families of donor patients are well cared for, but they also focus on the processes to make sure the hospital is meeting national standards and appropriately approaching potential donor families.
At the Tree of Life Ceremony on April 27, the perioperative nurses were recognized as well. These individuals had the honor of caring for all of the patients who gave the gift of life over the past year.
“These are people who are doing good work and always treating patients and their families with much respect and gratitude,” Weiss said.
The Tree of Life was the first major project for the Donor Council. While Gerdik knew it would be important to the families of donors, she didn’t realize the impact the tree would have on the staff until she saw trauma nurse Christina White-monds visiting the butterfly representing the 4-year-old patient for whom she cared.
“To know that staff come down to visit the leaves or butterflies means they are connected to those patients,” Gerdik said. “That’s what nursing is about — caring. That’s part of the healing process.”
Alice Weiss may have said it best: “Organ donation is an opportunity to transform a tragedy into a gift.” Thirty-four donors changed the lives of 96 people last year through that gift. Those who make their end-of-life journey at UF Health Jacksonville are honored and remembered in the hearts of the staff who cared for them, and the Tree of Life display is a visual expression of this.
Documenting your decision to donate life is easy. Visit Florida’s donor registry at DonateLifeFlorida.org to learn the facts and join the registry.