Life is full of forks in the road, some are U-turns and some are just little jogs that eventually will put you back on the highway. Sometimes, it's the way you react to a fork that determines how far off course you will go. Other times, the choices you make will completely alter the path you'd set out upon.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011 was the fork in my road. It began as any other day for me in the foothills of Sierra Nevada Mountains. My daughter was away at college, my son was off to school in the last few days of his junior year and my husband and I shared a car to work. My son, Scott, would pick Rich, my husband, up on his way home from work. At 3:42p.m. Rich phoned me and said, "Don't worry, but Scott isn't here yet".
I didn't worry, I panicked because Scott was never late to ANYTHING. It was his pet peeve - 12 years of schooling he'd only been tardy once. He'd never been late to his job as a courtesy clerk at a local grocery, his coaches always praised his show-up early and leave late attitude. So, in full mom-mode I jumped online to the emergency incident website and learned there was a car accident on his path to Rich. I jumped in my truck and headed in that direction. I could feel it was Scott.
I spent the 15 minutes enroute only to find the road blocked. As a light drizzle fell, I told the officer, "I think my son is in one of those cars". He asked his name and walked away from me talking into his radio. I stood silently in prayer, begging for Scott to be okay.
Returning back to me, the officer said, "Yes, ma'am. You're son in on his way to the hospital. You can meet him there". I asked if he was okay and he just continued, "the hospital will be waiting for you".
Jumping back in my truck, I called my husband and told him I was on my way to the hospital and that there had been an accident. He asked if I was coming to pick him up. In my worst wife moment I replied, "No, you can find your own ride". All I could do to focus on getting myself there. Every fibre in my body knew that things weren't good.
Scott, centre, with his family.
When we arrived at the hospital we learned that Scott had a simple car accident driving 30mph (5mph below the speed limit) and lost control. There was another car coming the other direction that hit Scott and Scott's injuries were life-threatening. The doctor said, "This is the worst part of my job, I have to tell you that your son probably won't wake up".
I fell to the floor, put my head in my husband's lap and wept. I couldn't breathe, it was the ugliest cry I had ever had in my 43 years. The wailing didn't seem like it was coming from me but I couldn't stop. After a few moments, they brought Scott into the room and I looked him over just like I did when he was born. Fingers - check; toes - perfect; face - beautiful. How was it possible that his head injury (from hitting his head on the passenger seat) was invisible? It didn't all add up - simultaneously knowing a miracle was possible and knowing Scott was gone. I knew I had to help others say goodbye.
Scott's sister, Marissa, and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins needed to come to say goodbye. I knew that his friends needed to say goodbye and they came in droves. With tears and funny stories that we had never heard. Teachers and coaches came to see him. I searched for meaning because I've always been the "silver lining" in every life lesson. But there was none.
A few days later, Scott was declared brain dead and we moved forward with honoring his desire to be an organ and tissue donor. No surprise as we'd heard so many stories of Scott helping others in the past few days. We sat by his side while the professionals worked to place his organs.
At one point, Marissa sat beside Scott holding his hand and calmly said, "Mom, on the worst day of our lives five families are getting the best news of theirs. That is the good". My daughter saw something good and we focused on writing the next chapter of Scott's story. We shared his choice to be a donor with the newspaper who had published a story about his accident; we told his friends and our families about how he would be changing lives. On May 21st at about 10pm we walked Scott to the operating room and touched him for the last time. I was devastated but so proud of his desire to give something to help another "if something ever happened".
Leaving the hospital and the next few months I was stuck at the fork - one side was depression, anger, bitterness and despair. The other side was sadness mixed with hope that the families who received Scott's organs didn't have to say goodbye before they were ready. This fork allowed me to talk about the next chapter of Scott that he couldn't write himself.
We learned that Scott saved the lives of five people through organ donation, gave sight to two through cornea donation, and has restored mobility to 73 others through his tissue donation. These gifts that Scott gave helped carry me through the darkest days of my life and we began to volunteer for Sierra Donor Services, the organ/tissue procurement organisation that facilitated Scott's donation.
Through volunteering we met recipients who were able to spend time with their families. We saw the direct result of how donation transforms lives. My plans of seeing both of my kids graduate college, get married, find careers and live had changed but I could find joy in helping others say "yes" to donation so other families had the one more day I yearned to have. I once overheard Marissa tell someone that she volunteers with that helping fills the place that would have been filled with Scott's rugby matches, double dates, and graduations.
A few years ago, we were able to meet three of the people who received Scott's organs. It was monumental. We first met Rod, the man who now lives with Scott's heart. He hugged me and said, "I'm afraid I won't meet your expectation." I assured him he did. He was living, walking, and that met all of my expectations.
The next day we gathered with all of Scott's recipients we'd met and their families for some photographs. My husband stood next to Rod and then said, "Can I?"
Without hesitation or permission, he put his head to Rod's chest and listened. Then he motioned for me to come and hear too. Rod's gifted heart beat strong and loud. I could remember listening to the same heartbeat when Scott was still in my tummy - I had heard it thousands of time as we cuddled together when he was growing up. I never dared to think how much I missed it but when I heard it - I could have stayed there for hours.
Rich and I called Marissa over to us and she buried her head in Rod's chest as Rich and I stood on either side of her holding her. Her shoulders shook with emotion and we formed a circle and for one brief moment in time I felt like my family was intact. I know Scott wasn't there but I could feel him and I took that moment to record my full heart.
Listening to Scott's heart.
Recently, we were blessed to visit Rod and his gifted heart. We loved learning that each day Rod takes his dog to run at the shore and chase bald eagles. It reminded me of a trip we took when Scott was young and we spent an afternoon on a river boat trying to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle. Now, his heart lives among them. I feel content.
We've witnessed the twin children of one recipient (kidney and pancreas) grow from young children to adolescents. His wife, Sheryl, shared with us her fears before her husband, Brian, received his transplant. She was preparing to be a single mom. Now, they go to soccer games, swim matches and celebrate birthdays together. Sheryl gave me a special ceramic heart deep with etches. She told me it reminded her of my heart. A heart that will never be the same but is still intact.
Fast forward a few years and I'm reflecting that fork I faced in 2011. It changed my entire life. I didn't want to be bitter and angry although I had many days that it was easy to go that way. I left the public education sector and joined the non-profit world at Sierra Donor Services. I could have never imagined working to make donations for transplants happen or becoming a living kidney donor myself - because until Scott taught us about donation, I never knew people died waiting for a transplant.
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