I want to tell you a story. You may think you know the people involved, especially if you’ve been in health care for any period of time. Lately, I’ve been thinking about a lot of stories from my years as a nurse, mostly because I’ve been working with an awesome and funny agency nurse who keeps egging me on. Narcissist that I am, I happily oblige her. This, however, is one person’s story in particular.
It’s the story of an average girl, from an average family. By all accounts she was funny, even irreverent, smart, sassy and full of energy. She was opinionated. She had a lot of friends. If you were to look into her future, you might see college and a career, a family, some kids. Maybe she had something really big coming down the pike-like she’d write a famous novel or develop a cure for a major illness. At 17 years old, on the verge of womanhood, I’m sure she thought about her future a lot.
I’m not sure any of us understand why sometimes children die. I like to think that the children who come into our lives only to be taken away too soon come with a purpose. They teach us to love, they teach us to make every day count and most of all they teach us that to be human is an impermanent state, as fleeting as butterflies. Or perhaps that’s just my rational mind searching for meaning to a meaningless tragedy. In any event, on this day eight years ago, this 17 year old girl died.
I will never meet Kari. At best, I can get an idea of who she was and who she might have become through the people who knew her. Yet, this 17 year old, who died eight years ago today, has touched my life. She’s touched a lot of lives, people that she never knew in places she could never imagine. Think about it-if you died today, do you think that your life would have meaning to anyone beyond your circle of family and friends? So many of the things we do, as human beings, are done to insure that something- some part of us, will live on after we die: great works of art are created, books are written, children are born. You can take the poorest among us or the most powerful and all want to be remembered, to leave behind a legacy.
If Kari had lived her life exactly as she did, she would have left behind a legacy of love and happiness and that would have been enough. But Kari did one thing more. She had already told her parents that if she died, she wanted to be an organ donor. Sure, her parents probably thought, never thinking that they’d actually have to honor that request. But they did. When Kari died, someone had to approach that family and ask them, in the midst of their grief, to donate her organs and they, in the midst of their grief, said yes.
You would think that that would be an easy and straightforward decision. But her parents didn’t have to say yes. There’s also a possibility that her parents wouldn’t have been asked. The road to requesting organ donation is more complicated than most may realize. The hospital may not have called in the referral to the organ procurement organization. They may have said to the family-there’s nothing more to be done, let’s just pull the plug and let her go. The nurses may have thought-what’s the use, this patient is dead or going to die, and not been vigilant in maintaining her organ function. Instead, in those hours as Kari became brain dead, calls were made, support was provided, information was given and a whole host of people, some of whom will never realize it, made the organ donation happen. From many, to one, back to many, Kari’s donation became like a stone thrown in a lake, the ripples carrying the legacy of her life farther and farther from its original impact.
I know about Kari because her lungs now live in my friend Steve. I know I talk a lot about the fact that people shouldn’t have to be proven “worthy” in order to receive a transplant, but if there’s a person out there who’s more worthy of those lungs, I’ve yet to find him. In eight years Steve has become the head cheerleader of the “Keep Kari’s Memory Alive” team. I always knew he was filled with gratitude. Although he’s very vocal about how much his transplant has transformed his life, it was his unspoken actions that showed me the depth of his devotion: on his key ring is a little sandal with one word on it-Kari.
I don’t know how many people Steve has touched in his life, but if you walk the streets of Chicago with him, you’d think he was the mayor. Someone once told me that gratitude is an action word and watching him in action is a lesson in how to live life. When I get to feeling sorry for myself, I write to Steve and soon I’m wondering what the hell I’m moping around about. And Steve is one person. Kari donated several of her organs-each one touching a life, each life touching the people around them, and those around them until, until what? I don’t know, but if you want to know what love to the infinity squared looks like, think of Kari. That’s a legacy any of us would be proud to leave behind.
*photo by Howard Thompson