Monday, January 23, 2012
Death is never an easy subject to address, especially when it happens suddenly and there has been no time to prepare emotionally for the loss of a loved one. When Sarah Burke crashed during a training run on a ski hill, there was no reason to expect that she wouldn’t get up like she had after hundreds of previous crashes, but this was different. She died on the mountain in Utah when her heart stopped beating and she stopped breathing. Death was denied when CPR at the scene restored her heartbeat but her brain never recovered and nine days later she was declared brain dead. And death was denied again, not for Ms. Burke, but for dozens of people that she had never known.
Sarah Burke had a game plan. She had let her family and friends know that should she die, she wanted to be an organ donor. And while her family grieved, they were able to remember and honor that plan to have her organs distributed to those in need. Ms. Burke was an ideal donor, an elite athlete with healthy organs and tissues whose only injury was to the brain. Everything else worked and could continue to work in another body.
There are a lot of people in need. At last count, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 112,757 people were on the waiting list for an organ and only 75 will receive a transplant each day. One donor can provide a life changing opportunity to multiple recipients. The list is long and includes heart, lung, kidney, liver, pancreas and intestine. Ad different tissues like bone, tendon, cartilage and corneas and one donor can benefit dozens.
The game plan can face roadblocks and the first is not having a game plan. Laws differ between states, but the key element is that well before the illness or injury has occurred, the patient needs to make their choices clear to family and friends. This is not a comfortable conversation to have around the dinner table or over drinks at the bar. Mortality is not a joyful topic to spend the evening discussing but by allowing one’s wishes to be known, there is a gift that can be opened only when standing by a dying friend.
When a death occurs and there is potential for organ donation, ideally a hospital nurse assigned as an organ procurement specialist will make the request of family. But sometimes, in times of crisis, the ball is dropped and that ask is lost. While family members often act as advocates for the patient when they are alive, that advocacy may continue after the patient dies. A potential donor’s family may have to be aggressive and ask for the opportunity to honor the wishes of the patient.
Sarah Burke was instrumental in getting her sport added as an event in the Winter Olympics Games and her athletic achievements will likely be her legacy. But for the families that she will never know, her organ donation game plan made the achievements on the slopes a mere footnote. And perhaps Ms. Burke’s organ donation will spur her fans to make game plans of their own…and the world will be a better place.