Honoring loved ones' final gifts

Ceremony celebrates the lives of organ donors - and the lives they were able to help

May 01, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Angela McLain said her younger brother "was a giving man" and wouldn't have had it any other way.

So when Antwoine McLain died at the age of 21 in July - a homicide victim, shot in the head while driving in Northeast Baltimore - his family decided to donate most of his organs.

"It was a donation, a gift of love," said his 39-year-old sister, who joined hundreds of other people at a ceremony yesterday honoring the many Maryland organ donors.

The gathering has grown since the first one held in 1996, when 50 people showed up, according to officials of the sponsoring Transplant Resource Center of Maryland. Yesterday there were about 800 people attending the ceremony at Goucher College, which marked the end of Donate Life Month.

Some family members wore commemorative buttons and T-shirts, and many wept as photos of donors and recipients were presented during a slide show.

When the names of their loved ones were read aloud, family members stood and rang a bell in remembrance.

David Boswell, 57, rang a bell for his daughter, Carrie, who committed suicide in 2001. Six months before she died, Carrie told her family she wanted to be an organ donor, he said.

Boswell said he always knew that his daughter's organs helped saved other people, but he said it was an abstract idea until he met a recipient. Deborah Thompson, 50, of Dauphin, Pa., received Carrie's lungs in May 2001, and Boswell met her at the ceremony in 2002.

"It's one of the highlights of my life," he said. "Knowing Debbie is incredibly important because it has allowed us to see our daughter as the hero she was."

Thompson, who had pulmonary fibrosis, was told by her doctors that she had about three months to live before she got a double-lung transplant. She had been on a waiting list for 11 months.

"I was extremely sick and on 12 to 18 liters of oxygen a day," she said. "I can see things now that I would never have seen. I just enjoy life. It was almost taken away."

From time to time, Thompson sends e-mails to Boswell, just to let him know how she's coming along.

Boswell said he cherishes his family's connection with Thompson and is comforted that others also benefited from donated organs, including a man in Ohio who received a kidney and two people in Baltimore who had cornea transplants.

"I hate to think of those lungs rotting away in a grave and Debbie passing away four or five years ago," he said. "My daughter's gift saved or dramatically altered the lives of six or seven people she never met."

About 2,400 people in Maryland are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant, according to the resource center.

Rosalind Canada's son, Robert Alvin Russell III, was a donor in August 2004, after he was fatally shot in Baltimore.

Canada, 44, said it was not a matter of whether she would donate her son's organs, but which organs to donate.

"I was determined for him to live on and help somebody else," Canada said. "Out of the tragedy of his death something good happened."

Russell's corneas and skin tissue were donated; Canada also wanted to donate her son's kidneys to a cousin who is on a transplant list, but the organs were too badly damaged.

Canada, who is black, said it is important for African-Americans to become organ donors.

"I don't think we understand the real need," she said. "It has been hard for my cousin to find a match."

Of the thousands of patients waiting for a kidney transplant, 35 percent are black.

Canada said that many people might not understand the time constraints and might feel like conversations about organ donations come too soon on the heels of the death of a loved one. "A lot of people feel it is insensitive, but it has to happen quickly."

Chrissy Green, 39, got the call about her 16-year-old daughter's organs a little before midnight in October. Bethany Shay Green died in a car accident; she had stipulated on her driver's license that she wanted to be an organ donor. Her family came yesterday wearing blue T-shirts bearing her picture on the back.

The decision to donate Bethany's corneas, skin and leg bones came easily, Green said.

"It was the right thing to do, and it's what she wanted. It's a way to remember Bethany. We know that part of her is out there somewhere with someone."

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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