Donating life: An unselfish act of love

LifeGift is celebrating its silver anniversary in 2012. Throughout its 25-year history, LifeGift has helped restore the lives of thousands through organ and tissue donation. For more information, visit www.lifegift.org (LifeGift Houston)
September 2, 2012 5:46:59 PM PDT
Do you ever think about what will happen after you die? Maybe you have family and friends that will mourn your death. Maybe a funeral or memorial service will be held and tears will fall. Maybe they will scatter your ashes or place your body in a tomb, never to be seen again. And then what?

Organ donation isn't something everyone likes to talk about, probably because death isn't something everyone likes to talk about. But you will die, and you have options after you pass as to what will happen to the organs and tissues that were a part of you.

A nonprofit organization headquartered in Houston hopes you choose to be an organ donor and let those parts of you give life to others.

LifeGift promotes organ donation awareness and facilitates lifesaving transplants. The organization recovers organs and tissue for individuals needing transplants in 109 counties in North, Southeast and West Texas.

This year, LifeGift is celebrating 25 years since its inception. During this silver anniversary year and every year, they reach out to educate the public about organ donation and the lives it saves.

According to LifeGift, the generosity of one donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and save or enhance nearly 100 lives through tissue donation. (Tissue includes skin, bone, heart valves, veins and corneas.)

We spoke to four Houston-area residents whose lives have been touched by organ and tissue donation: a woman whose son's heart now beats in the chest of a another man; the man who received that heart; a mom who would be dead without the new lungs she received; and a mother who wouldn't let her one-year-old baby die in vain. They said they wanted to share their stories to inspire people to give life.

A HEART BEATS ON

Shannon Lenox has been an organ donor since she first got a driver's license. One day, her 21-year-old son, Roy Heck, came up to her and stated that if anything ever happened to him, he didn't care what she did with his organs. He was fine with donating them.

Two weeks later, Roy was in an accident.

It was March 29, 2010, and he was on his way back from New Braunfels with four friends. They were on Interstate 10 at the Katy-Sealy border when a tire blew out. The car flipped and Roy was ejected from the back seat. His friends survived, but Roy was rushed to a hospital where he died three days later.

"Roy's death was so unexpected," Lenox said. "He was loved by so many people."

Lenox said she knew what she wanted to do -- and needed to do -- on her son's behalf. Roy was able to donate his heart, liver, pancreas and both kidneys.

Not far away, a man was waiting patiently for another chance at life.

Michael Nall, 59 at the time, had already gone through five heart attacks and just about every heart problem and procedure you could think of. He couldn't walk from his house to his car in the driveway, much less do the fun things grandfathers want to do with their grandchildren. His only hope was a new heart, so he got on the transplant list.

Three months after getting his name on the list, Nall received a heart thanks to the selfless gift of a 21-year-old New Caney High School graduate named Roy.

"You can't say 'thank you' for what they've done. You just can't say in words what it means," Nall said. "I feel like I'm 35. Sometimes I can't get this 61-year-old body to keep up. But I have the heart of a 21-year-old."

Now, Nall is able to do all the things he wants to do with his children and grandchildren, like camping, fishing and going to baseball and football games. He even participated in the 2012 Transplant Games of America -- an Olympics multi-sport festival for transplant recipients and living donors. He was in the 100-meter dash, discuss throw, shot put and bowling.

"I have my life back," he said. "And it's not just my life. I'm carrying on part of their son. Not only am I taking care of myself, I'm taking care of part of Roy and his family, keeping his memory alive and continuing his legacy."

In all, Roy's gifts saved five lives. His mother said she has been blessed enough to meet one of them so far -- Nall.

Sometimes in organ donation cases, both the recipient and the donor family say they are open to contact from one another. It wasn't long after Lenox learned who received her son's heart that she tracked down Nall. And she wasn't alone. Nall's family was tracking down Lenox as well.

Finally, they set up a meeting at the LifeGift headquarters in Houston, and their lives haven't been the same since.

"I had so many emotions about meeting someone who gave me new life. It was emotions I'd never had," Nall said. "Someone that caring, that loving to someone they don't even know is incredible."

When Lenox and Nall saw one another for the first time in March 2011, they hugged and held on tight, and Lenox could feel and hear her son's heart beating in the man's chest. Their families came with them and they stayed and talked for eight hours, then left and had dinner together.

"We look at this as gaining another family. Everyone I've met from Roy's family has been like a long lost relative," Nall said. "The things I do from here on out, they are as much a part of it as my family is."

And Lenox couldn't agree more. She said she's grateful because their relationship has helped bring closure and heal some of the pain of losing Roy.

"The young people who have met Michael, first they're overwhelmed by it and then they're humbled by it because they can see Roy's heart is beating on. We've registered a lot of Roy's friends [as organ donors] and also brought peace to a lot of families by having them meet Michael. His personality has healed so many people," she said. "I don't regret my decision for organ donation at all. Of all the decisions we had to make when Roy died, that was the easiest. Now, he lives on."

Lenox is now a volunteer for LifeGift, and she hopes other donor families can have the same kind of relationship with their recipients as she has with the man who received her son's heart.

"Life changes when you lose a child. The whole world looks different. It's like the blinders came off and I just wanted to make a difference ... so I made the decision to quit work and started volunteering full time," Lenox said. "I've worked a lot with other donor families and recipients in connecting them. It's about breaking the wall down and letting them know it's OK to reach out to each other.

Expanding on her volunteerism, Lenox started a ministry in her son's memory called It's a Heck of a Blanket. With a group of volunteers, she makes blankets by hand that are distributed to families in intensive care units as they await news on their loved ones.

"Sometimes that blanket is the only thing they take with them when they leave the hospital," Lenox said. "It's a healing thing. When they get a blanket, they know they're not alone. It can mean the world."

And Lenox, Nall and their families continue to spread awareness and encourage people to register as organ donors.

"They'll take some of my parts when I die. You can't take them with you," Nall said. "The greatest thing in life you can ever do is give the gift of life to someone else. One person can touch the lives of so many people. It's such an unselfish act of love."

BREATHING NEW LIFE

Two years ago, Twana Schulz was 39 years old, and she was dying.

Diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, the high blood pressure in Schulz's lungs had caused her heart to enlarge to the point that it was failing.

"It was August of 2010 when my doctor said, 'I don't have any more rabbits in my hat,'" Schulz said. "I was in the hospital on a last-resort drug, and it wasn't working."

Schulz needed a double lung transplant. That was the only way she could survive. After going through the evaluations and making her request, Schulz was placed on the transplant list in mid-November.

She didn't have to wait long.

"December 24 is when I got the call. I had just gotten out of the hospital so I could be with my kids at Christmas," she said.

Schulz and her family went to a church service that night, then to her pastor's home for dinner. They sat around the table and prayed. That's when the phone rang.

"It was a true Christmas miracle," Schulz said. "They did the surgery Christmas Day 2010. Best gift I've ever received."

It wasn't until after her transplant that Schulz realized how sick she had been. She'd only had six months left to live. She couldn't walk upstairs to wake up her children for school, but she was still pushing herself and trying to make the most out of everything.

She can walk up those stairs now. And her zest for life has only been amplified. Her children, 13-year-old Ashton and 10-year-old Erika, are reaping the rewards.

"It's been amazing, truly amazing. We just got back from vacation with the kids, and I rode every ride with them," she said, laughing. "I'm living life and not taking advantage of a single thing. People take advantage of way too much. I know how blessed I am."

Schulz said she has been a registered organ donor since she turned 16. She never thought she would be a recipient, though. The stay-at-home mom's mission now is to use her renewed vigor to volunteer with LifeGift and spread the word about organ donation.

"[The transplant has] given me the opportunity to do so much more, and I think to touch people's lives," she said. "There's so many misconceptions about donation: that they want your organs while you're alive or that the doctors won't try to save you if you're dying. I love talking to people, educating them and putting those rumors to rest."

Schulz has never met the family of the woman who saved her life. They opted out of communication. Schulz only knows the lungs came from a 35-year-old woman, and she said she is forever grateful to her and her family.

"In her death, she gave me the ultimate gift: life," she said.

A BABY'S GIFT

Fernanda Valentina Rodriguez was affectionately called "Fergy" by her family. She was always smiling, always happy and always laughing. At her first birthday party, she sweetly greeted every guest with a hug and kiss. She was loved and wanted.

But Fergy's life was short. She died at just 15 months old.

She was in the driveway when her uncle backed his pickup truck over her. She was struck in the head and taken by Life Flight to Memorial Hermann Children's Hospital, but she wasn't responding. She was brain dead, and her parents had a tough decision to make.

"We were allowed to go into the room with her, and then we went into the waiting area," Fergy's mother, Nancy Rodriguez, said. "Our priest, friends and family were there, and then [a LifeGift representative] walked in."

Part of what LifeGift does is discuss donation with family members and inform them of their options, often at unfortunate times.

Organ donation can be a morbid, taboo topic. The removal of organs after death is culturally rejected in many societies, and not all cultures are open to the discussion.

"Being Hispanic, it's a subject we don't talk about," Rodriguez said. "We generally believe that the way God sent me is the way God takes me."

Rodriguez said her husband speaks limited English. She usually translates things for him, but he needed no translation when the LifeGift family care specialist asked him one important question.

"She asked us if we wanted to donate our daughter's organs or tissues," Rodriguez said. "My husband immediately said, 'yes I do.'"

The LifeGift representative explained the process and reassured the parents that Fergy's body would not be left disfigured and they could still have an open-casket funeral. From there, Rodriguez and her husband signed the paperwork.

Rodriguez said Fergy's bones, heart valves and veins were donated, allowing her to enhance up to 80 lives.

"We had a lot of mixed emotions at first, but we now realize that was her mission in life," Rodriguez said. "Her mission was to give light, love and life to others."

As a volunteer with LifeGift, Fergy's mother is doing what she can to ensure that her child's legacy lives on.

"I'm keeping up with her mission by spreading the word about donation. I don't want people to not make their loved ones donors because they are so wrapped up in grief," she said. "I also like to talk a lot about the importance of signing up now to be an organ and tissue donor. Don't leave it up to your family. Make that decision yourself."

Because of her cultural background and the view of organ and tissue donation in the Hispanic community, Rodriguez focuses on that group in her efforts.

"It's so taboo in the Hispanic community. There are so many misconceptions," she said. "My focus is on that community, addressing those misconceptions and encouraging them to sign up."

Fergy's family remembers her as angelic. Every time she saw a cross, she would look to it and laugh sweetly. She would hold her hands high and look to the heavens and smile. She was a blessing, Rodriguez said, and she is missed. But the lives she saved allow her to live within them.

"My 15-month-old baby is the youngest leader and smallest missionary I've ever seen," Rodriguez said. "Follow her path. Be like her. Leave a legacy here for others to follow."

HOW TO BE A DONOR

While LifeGift's efforts to educate the public have been fruitful and the number of registered donors is up, the need is still great. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are currently waiting for lifesaving transplants in this country, and about 18 die every day due to a lack of available organs.

According to LifeGift, 90 percent of Americans say they support organ and tissue donation, but only 30 percent know the essential steps it takes to be a donor.

There are three easy ways to register as an eye, organ and tissue donor in Texas:

To learn more about the donation process, reading more donation stories or becoming a volunteer with LifeGift, visit www.lifegift.org.

See photos of the people in this story.


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