Ryan’s Hope

Ryan’s Hope

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Ryan’s Hope

. . . Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Psalm 30:5

The day started out normally enough. It was May 1, 1997. Ryan was upstairs preparing to leave for school, while his six-year-old sister, Jamie, waited for him at the front door. Suddenly Ryan started to tell us all about Albert Einstein with such enthusiasm and excitement, it was as if a light had gone on in this head. He said, “E=mc2—I understand what Einstein was saying: the theory of relativity. I understand now!”

I said, “That’s wonderful,” but thought, How odd. It wasn’t his thinking about Einstein—Ryan was so intelligent—but rather the timing that seemed peculiar.

At ten years old, Ryan loved knowledge and seemed to have an abundance of it, far beyond his years. The possibilities of the universe were boundless to him. When he was in first grade, the children in his class were asked to draw a picture and answer the question, “If you could be anyone, who would you be?” Ryan wrote: “If I could be anyone, I’d want to be God.” At age seven, while sitting in church one day, he wrote:

The tree of Life, O, the tree of Glory,
The tree of God of the World, O, the tree of me.

Somehow I think Ryan just “got it.”

In the midst of his strange outburst about Einstein, Ryan suddenly called out that he had a headache. I went upstairs and found him lying on his bed. He looked at me and said, “Oh, Mommy, my head hurts so bad. I don’t know what’s happening to me. You’ve got to get me to the hospital.”

By the time we arrived at the hospital in Newmarket he was unconscious. We stood by helplessly as the doctors fought to save his life, and then they transferred him by ambulance to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

A couple of hours later we were finally allowed to see him. He was hooked up to a life support system. When the doctor told us our son had suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage and was “legally and clinically brain dead,” it felt like a terrible nightmare. We went into shock. Nothing more could be done, the doctor said, and asked if would we consider organ donation. Astonishingly, we had discussed this with Ryan only recently. We looked at each other and simultaneously replied, “Oh yes, Ryan would have wanted that.”

In April, Ryan had seen his dad filling out the organ donor card on the back of his driver’s license. His dad had explained to him about organ donation and how you could help save another’s life by agreeing to donate your organs when you die. When Ryan wondered if you needed a driver’s license to do this, his dad replied that anyone could donate their organs.

Organ donation made such perfect sense to Ryan, he went on his own campaign persuading the entire family to sign donor cards. We had no doubt that donating Ryan’s organs was the right thing to do.

After a small bedside service, we said our good-byes to our son. When we left the hospital, we left a part of ourselves behind. Driving home, I could feel a thick fog roll in and surround me, crushing me. We were in total disbelief. My husband, Dale, and I cried in each other’s arms all that night and for many nights after. It was as if part of me had died with my son.

Grief consumed me for a long time. We kept waiting for Ryan to walk in the door. We grieved for the loss of today, and also for the loss of our hopes and dreams. I realize now you never get over the death of your child. With time you heal, but you are forever changed. It was our daughter Jamie who gave us a reason to get up in the morning and carry on.

Then, on a beautiful morning four months after Ryan’s death, the first letter arrived, addressed to my husband and me. As we read it, we both began to weep. It was from a twenty-year-old university student thanking us for our “gift of sight.” He had received one of Ryan’s corneas and could now see again. It is difficult to describe our emotions— we wept, but at the same time, we felt wonderful.

Sometime later we received a second letter from a young woman of thirty who had received one of Ryan’s kidneys and his pancreas. She’d had diabetes since she was five, spending much of her recent years hooked up to a dialysis machine. She told us that because of Ryan, she was now free from insulin and dialysis, able to work again and return to a normal life.

Early May brought the painful first anniversary of our son’s death. Then we received our third letter. A young boy of sixteen, born with cystic fibrosis, had received Ryan’s lungs. Without the double lung transplant he received, he would have died. Besides being able to return to school, he was now doing things he had never done before—running, playing hockey and roller blading with his friends. Knowing this boy’s life had been renewed lifted our spirits immensely.

Due to confidentiality laws, organ donation is completely anonymous in Canada. However, organ recipients and their donor families can communicate through the organ transplant organization. Although we didn’t know the identities of the individuals who had received Ryan’s organs, we were given updates about their health.

We learned about a six-year-old girl who had received Ryan’s other kidney and was now healthy, free from dialysis and attending school full time. We also learned that the forty-two-year-old woman who had received Ryan’s liver was doing well and was able to again spend time with her young family.

Such joy seemed to come from our sorrow, so much happiness from our loss.

Although nothing could take away our pain, we took great comfort and peace in knowing that Ryan had done something most of us will never do—he had saved lives!

That summer, while on vacation in Haliburton, we met a young man—by sheer coincidence—who had had a kidney and pancreas transplant at the same hospital where some of Ryan’s organs had been transplanted. He knew the young woman who had received her kidney and pancreas on May 2 from a ten-year-old boy he believed to be our son. Her name was Lisa, and she was doing great. Afraid to ask her last name, I later wondered if I might have passed up my only chance to meet one of Ryan’s organ recipients.

This chance meeting inspired me, and the following spring I decided to share our experiences with others. I’m not a writer, so it was a challenge to write a story and send it to the newspapers for National Organ Donor Week. I faxed my article to three papers, and to my astonishment, all three wanted to feature it! A flurry of interviews and photo sessions followed, and we experienced an excitement we thought we were no longer capable of.

When the first article appeared, Dale and I were totally overwhelmed when we opened the paper to find that Ryan’s story of hope was the banner story—right on the front page! Included in the article was the poem Ryan had written when he was seven, just as we had it inscribed on his tombstone. We wept tears of joy and sadness as we read it over and over. In his brief ten years on this earth, our son Ryan had made a difference.

A few days later, the article appeared in the other two papers, and for a few weeks we received calls from people all across Canada. Surprised but delighted, we hoped the story would help raise awareness about organ donation and perhaps inspire others to donate.

Apparently Lisa also read the article. When she saw Ryan’s poem, she recognized it from a letter we had sent her and realized he was her organ donor. The article said we would be at the Gift of Life medal presentation in Toronto two weeks later, so she decided to attend. Once there, she was unsure about introducing herself. We all wore name tags, and when Lisa found herself standing next to my husband Dale she just couldn’t hold back. You can imagine the emotional scene of hugs and tears that followed! It was truly a miraculous, unforgettable moment! It felt so wonderful to see her standing there alive and healthy, knowing that our son had helped make that possible. Ryan’s kidney and pancreas had apparently been a perfect match. And part of him now lives on in her.

Moments later, a woman approached us with her eight-year-old daughter. “I think my daughter has your son’s kidney,” she said. Kasia was just four when both of her kidneys had shut down and she had gone on dialysis. The details of her transplant matched, and we all felt certain it must have been Ryan’s kidney that had given this lovely girl a new life. A few weeks later when we visited Ryan’s grave, we wept tears of joy when we found a beautiful drawing left there, signed “Kasia.”

Due to the Canadian confidentiality laws, meetings such as these are very rare, and it is impossible to describe the intense emotions that result. When Ryan died I thought I would never again feel joy. But meeting Lisa and Kasia was a kind of miracle, opening my heart to those feelings I thought had been forever buried with my son.

Today, I now know I will always be the mother of two children. Ryan is, and always will be, part of our family and our lives. Although the pain of losing him will never completely leave me, I have begun putting the pieces of my life back together, though it now takes a different shape. Part of our healing came from our experience of donating Ryan’s organs. I am so grateful that God allowed me to meet Lisa and Kasia so my heart and soul could reopen. Meeting them allowed me to experience that “once in a lifetime” kind of feeling again, the one I thought was gone forever.

Nancy Lee Doige
Aurora, Ontario

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