Gift of Life

After midnight, October 10th, 2009. Laying in bed a few hours after being told my husband, father of my children, and love of my life was dead. It’s a surreal memory, and at the time I felt like I was floating above my own body, observing the chaos that was now my life and not really being present in any moment, thought, or feeling. I remember hearing my own heart beating a thousand beats per minute. It was as if I was running in a full sprint and had been for hours, completely out of breath, completely winded, completely exhausted, without moving a muscle from my bed.

Next thing I know my phone was ringing and my first thought was that it had to be Mitch. Maybe they had made a mistake, maybe someone stole the plane, maybe it wasn’t him flying, maybe this bad dream was going to end quickly and happily – no such luck. I don’t know why I answered the call but I did and the man on the other end told me he was calling from the Organ Network of Arizona. I don’t remember much of the initial conversation, it is all such a blur to me like that entire day/evening/week/month. He asked if Mitch was a donor and I confirmed that he was. He wanted to go over donation opportunities with me and get my consent for next steps. I was stunned, angry, crushed, devastated. Didn’t he know I was told just hours earlier that they *thought* Mitch was dead? Didn’t he care that I had just lost everything that mattered in my world? Why didn’t he realize that this phone call was just about the most painful thing I had ever experienced, well at least in the past 5 minutes?

I remember sitting there quietly, not able to speak, not able to think. Obviously the man I was dealing with had been through this many times before, talk about your crap job. This one now tops my personal list of worst possible jobs in America. “Hello Mrs. Steinke, we understand your husband is dead, will you give us his body?” He was patient with me, he spoke slowly, he understood my resistance to the call and the conversation.

Mitch and I had always pledged to be organ donors. It was never even an issue that was up for discussion. We both decided very early on that if we were dead and someone else could live as a result of our donation then we would donate happily. Yet, despite knowing full well what Mitch wanted, and having complete support for that decision up until that day, it completely caught me off guard at how opposed I was to the donation. I asked him to call me back, he told me it was time sensitive, and I said, “please, give me me an hour”. So we hung up and my heart rate accelerated at even a faster pace than before. How do I donate my husband’s body? How do I, hours after learning of his death, make the decision to give every last “usable” piece of him for a stranger. I called my sister who was not sleeping either and we talked. She understood my strange objection, but she also helped me see that I was not in a rational state of mind and confirmed for me that the donation was the right thing to do.

A short while later my phone rang again and it was Donor Network. I confirmed the donation and he walked me through the process, painful as it was. We discussed every possible donation potential as I gave a simple yes or no response.

I share this story not to make you sad, not to make you feel sorry for me, but to show you just how important it is to understand your spouses wishes on this extremely important matter. Regardless of your families decision to donate or not donate (it’s a personal choice) but you MUST understand what you and your spouse want. These decisions should not be left to someone who is experiencing extreme trauma and pain. Don’t say, “it won’t happen to me or us so I don’t have to worry about it,” because you can just never be sure.

Mitch is proud that I donated, I’m sure of it. He would want to know that someone else was able to have a better quality of life (or life period) because of our sacrifice. I still get letters from Donor Network and they continually thank me and update me on the good that has come from our donation. Most importantly, they still address any correspondence with me as, “Mrs. Michelle Steinke” understanding I will always be his wife.

Make your decisions, write them down, make them known, not for yourself, but for those you love so if the time comes (and I hope it never does) you don’t have to make the hard choices alone.


~Michelle (1fw)

10 thoughts on “Gift of Life

  1. Hello I just read your post on organ donation and I completely sympathize with what you had to go through in making your decisions when you got that phone call for two reasons. First reason being my husband I also wanted to be a complete organ donor however due to the extent of his accident we were able to donate were his eyes. Secondly, my oldest daughter is a nurse practitioner and several years ago worked for UNYTS “upstate New York organ transplant”. She was the organ donor coordinator. She was the person or would have been the person who would have called you. It was a very very difficult job.i’m sure by now you know all the details and procedures for to the organ donor coordinator to work with the family during this very difficult process and decision.The counseling that she had to provide to each family and yet also keeping track of the person or peopleWho were waiting patiently in other hospitals already prepped to receive the beautiful gift of life. My husband was not able to give the gift of life but he’s so very much wanted to And we so very much wanted that for him is we knew how important it was for him. Is I think I mentioned in one of my other posts he was a regular platelet donor. He donated platelets 27 times and would have never stopped had he not passed away. This was important to him as we had lost a very good friend to leukemia. So anyone who might be reading this it is very true it is very difficultto make the decision to let our loved ones “physical body” go but if we can keep in mind that that was there wish and that in doing so we are giving the gift of life to another person or persons waiting patiently in a hospital probably just across town.and is for the person who calls you to ask if you are ready to let your loved ones body and organs go, please know how difficult of a job this is for them and just how much compassion these medical professionals like my daughter actually have for both your family and also for the potential organ recipients family. And organ donor coordinator’s job is a 24/7 on-call job. They keep track of the entire list of people who are sick their needs their blood types what organs they may need to keep them alive, Who is the sickest, Whose blood type matches, and they don’t always match but when they do it would have beenThe “gift of life from you”, ” the gift of life from your loved one” and although we still grieve and hurt if we can find just a little bit of solicse in the fact that our loved one lives in another person forever and gave this wonderful gift of lifesometimes many gifts of life come from just one of our losses. So in as much as it hurts,it is a true medical miracle that I truly believe God has gifted our doctors with the knowledge to provide. He is very late and I hope I have not made too many typographical error’s as I am laying in bed typing on my phone. God bless you! Marcy

  2. This is Marcy again I’m so sorry. What I meant to say that it is very late and I hope I have not made too many typographical errors. As I read back I see that I have I am sorry I hope I have made some sense.

  3. My husband too was an organ donor. He died suddenly of a massive heart attack on a summer evening while we were walking in the park. i was sitting in bed later that evening, very much in shock, when the Life Center called about donating his organs. We had discussed it before, so I knew it was something he really wanted to do. Since his heart had stopped, we could only donate his corneas, skin, bone, tissue and ligaments. I wondered if these types of donations really made a difference. About six months after his death, we were invited to a donor family recognition ceremony. I debated about going, but finally decided to go, and it was beautiful! Several organ recipients spoke, including a woman who received cornea transplants, and the most touching for me, was a man who received donor bone for a spinal surgery. He told the story that for his first surgery, they used his own bone, taken from his leg, and said the pain was excruciating. The next surgery used the donor bone and his recovery was so much easier. He was so deeply grateful To the organ donor and their family. The surgery changed his life. He cried as he told his story. We all cried. The program ended with a slide show of pictures and names all the people who had donated the gift of life, in our area, that past year. There were babies and children and teenagers, young adults, middle aged and elderly people. And every one of the 200 or so people in the audience were friends and family members of all those donors. It was very powerful. I left there with a rose and a certificate of appreciation with my husbands name on it. And the knowledge that he really did make a difference in a stranger’s life. I may never know who he helped, but he did help and It makes me proud.

  4. Matt’s organ donation made an already very confusing time more confusing. He was on so much life support toward the end. After issuing a DNR and having his body initially fail, the machines picked up the slack. His actual time of death was not declared until they could declare brain death– shutting off machines and running a test. It was 4 am when a new doctor came on shift and all of my family had gone. This could have been by design as it was hard to sit me down solo (I was 8 month pregnant and hardly ever alone). The transplant coordinator was amazing and though I was in a twilight zone I knew Matt’s wish would be honored. For me it was allowing him to have final say– he knew he wanted to make a difference as a donor. And he did, he gave his heart on valentines morning. Accompanying him to the OR, writing a last valentine to him, letting go, again. I fully knew he was no longer ‘there’, but wow was it hard.

  5. My husband died unexpectedly last month. Like Marybeth’s husband, he died of a sudden heart attack, so only certain parts could be donated. Though I knew Joe was an organ donor and would have been insistent about helping others, it was an odd moment when I had to make the decision about whether or not to keep him “whole” in death. Of course I honored his wishes, but it was much harder than I would have thought. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

  6. Although these stories are lovely and heartfelt, unfortunately there is also a flip side. At 4:00 am, 16 months ago, I was told by an emergency room nurse in a small hospital annex that there was a phone call that I had to unfortunately take. My husband and best friend of 26 years had passed away less than three hours earlier after being released with a diagnosis of a possible chest muscle pull to my vehement disagreement. My husband was in more pain than I had ever seen him in. The hospital failed to provide a minimum standard of care and completely missed a rupturing thoracic aorta, even though he had been in their care for over six hours.
    Florida Organ Donation was on the phone telling me that because my husband had it on his driver’s license to be an organ donor, they were coming to take his body. I tried to explain that although I knew his wishes were to do that, I could not let them have his body as there had to be an autopsy as we had to find out cause of death and I could not take any chances of mistakes occurring. I was berated by the woman on the other end of the phone line. I was threatened. I tried to make her see that I could not release his body to them, I had to preserve it for the autopsy. She was relentless. Finally, an angel of a nurse took the phone from my sobbing body lying on a hospital floor and she informed the woman that she had deputies posted at her two entrances and there would be legal trouble if they tried to come remove my husband’s body by force.
    I am 16 months still involved in three wrongful death suits, two of which we have won so far.
    Do I believe in organ donation – yes, Under the right circumstances. I had to know why my husband died. I have two sons, now 20 & 17. I had to know for their medical history why my husband died. I had to preserve my husband’s body for so many reasons. Although my world was completely falling apart around me I knew I had to protect my family and organ donation, tissue donation etc…would not have preserved my husband’s body for the answers that we needed.
    Unfortunately, my entire extended family and friends have now removed ourselves from the organ registry in Florida. I have it written in my wills what my medical wishes are in terms of organ donation, but I have the power, not a woman on the other end of a phone line trying to tell me that I had no legal right to keep them from taking my husband that morning.
    Just be aware what the laws are in your state concerning organ donation. No one should ever have to go through what I went through with that woman at the absolute most vulnerable moment in my life.

  7. I also got that call from the donor centerbin Boston, asking for my husband Bryan’s corneas, skin, bones and ligaments. His heart attack made that unusable. I was numb, but agreed immediately. We both had decided years before to be organ donors. The caller from the donor center was kind, patient and explained everything to me, answering my questions. I have no doubt that Bryan would want it that way. I also received updates and yearly correspondence from the donor center. I felt good knowing that someone else would have a better quality of life because of Bryan’s final act of giving.

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