66: A Shower of Gifts

66: A Shower of Gifts

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

A Shower of Gifts

Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.


Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. The rattle of my pager dancing across the bedside table brought me out of a deep sleep. It took a few seconds to figure out what woke me. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

“Rats,” I muttered, and silenced the torture device. I grabbed my phone and left the bedroom before my husband woke. “Please God, not today,” I whispered, and headed downstairs for my notepad and computer.

As an organ transplant coordinator, I frequently worked twenty-four-hour call shifts that started at 6:00 a.m. My shift had begun.

I loved my job helping families through the sudden death of a loved one by offering them the opportunity to save lives through organ and tissue donation. Most families viewed this as the only positive outcome of the worst day of their lives. I wanted to advocate for the thousands of people on the waiting list.

I just didn’t want to do it that day.

My first grandchild was due and a baby shower was planned for that afternoon. I didn’t mind working all day and night; I just wanted to go to the shower for a few hours.

Before I dialed the number on the pager screen I uttered a prayer. It was admittedly selfish. “Please God; let it be at a nearby hospital. Or someone not close to being brain dead. Or maybe someone not medically suitable to donate.”

A tired voice gave me the brief details of my assignment. I’d get the rest of the information from the ICU nurse. I hurriedly dressed and grabbed my equipment and the baby shower gift. Just in case.

While en route I spoke with the ICU nurse. The patient, Yvonne, was a forty-five-year-old woman with a ruptured blood vessel in her brain. She had been healthy until she complained of a headache and collapsed. The medical team had completed the first set of tests to determine brain death.

My heart sank. I would not be going to my daughter’s baby shower. I cried as I called her. “I’m sorry, honey. I just got called out on a case and I don’t think I’ll make it to your shower.” I heard her sniffling when we ended the call.

I wiped my eyes and gave myself a mental shake. It was time to focus on the needs of this family. After all, I was about to celebrate a birth; they faced a death. How could I complain?

The next twenty-four hours were a blur. I scoured all of Yvonne’s medical records while the staff repeated the brain death tests. When she was officially pronounced brain dead, I met with the family. They were devastated. They had cried, prayed and begged for a miracle ever since she’d collapsed at home just twelve hours before. How could this happen to their lovely, healthy child, wife, sister?

I had no answers.

“Tell me about Yvonne,” I said. The room was quiet for ten seconds and then one by one her grieving family shared how loving, sweet and kind she was. Her husband shared stories of her generosity.

“That’s right,” her brother said. “She would give you the shirt off her back.”

“I am so sorry for your loss. From all the wonderful things you’ve told me, I’m sure I would have liked her. As you know, Yvonne was pronounced brain dead at 10:00, but because she is still on the ventilator and on certain medications, her heart is still beating. I am so sorry you did not receive the miracle you prayed for, but she has the opportunity to be the miracle for several people who desperately need an organ transplant.” I paused so they could absorb the information.

“It’s not often people die in this manner, but it’s the only way a person can receive an organ, other than kidneys, from living donors.”

Yvonne’s parents looked at her husband, wiping their eyes. “What do you think? Did she want to be an organ donor?”

“I know she didn’t put it on her license but we never really discussed it,” he said.

I turned to Yvonne’s brother. “Dan, you said she would give you the shirt off her back. If she knew she could save the lives of up to eight people, what do you think she would say?”

Four people answered in unison. “Yes.”

“Can she really save that many lives?” Her husband’s voice choked.

It was my turn to answer. “Yes.”

It took almost twenty hours to make all the arrangements. Tests were needed to assess the health of each organ that was gifted. I needed to work with UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing, to identify the recipients, then arrange for the surgical teams to come recover those organs.

As I worked through the night my mind wandered to my family a few times. I thought about the baby shower, but of course didn’t mention it to anyone as I plowed ahead with my tasks.

The organ recovery was underway and going well when a coworker arrived to relieve me. After reporting to her, I stumbled to the ICU waiting area to speak with the family. Although most families say goodbye to their loved ones and leave immediately after the consent is signed, this family vowed to stay until the donation process was completed.

They stood as one when I stepped into the room. I noticed they wore identical expressions of concern and I assured them. “All is well.”

I folded into an empty chair. The adrenaline rush had worn off and I was suddenly exhausted. “My coworker Diane is here to relieve me. She knows you’re waiting and she’ll be up to speak with you after she finishes with Yvonne’s care. Again, I am so sorry for your loss. You have a wonderful, kind family and it has been my pleasure to be with you through this journey.”

When I stood and extended my hand to her family, I was engulfed in one powerful embrace after another. Her husband and parents thanked me. “You are so kind, Judy. God bless you,” her mother said as she hugged me.

Dan, Yvonne’s baby brother, spoke through tears. “Please tell your family how much we needed you today and how much you helped us. I know they must miss out on a lot of time with you since you’re away for such long hours. Let them know we appreciate their sacrifice.”

I was humbled and embarrassed by my earlier prayers and resentment. Although I couldn’t attend the baby shower, the gifts given that night were better than any that my daughter had unwrapped. Yvonne’s courageous family showered the gift of life onto six people.

~Judy Pencek

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