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.