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Flag, stories help ease jolt of organ gift

Sat., June 15, 2013

Recipients, as well as donors’ families, find emotional outlets

Outside Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, a flag waves for fallen heroes of a different sort.

A white flag with a dark green ribbon is flown above the hospital. “Honoring the gift of life through organ and tissue donation,” the flag reads.

A family’s emotional recovery after organ donation is not an easy process for the donor or the recipient, said Todd Seiger, a transplant manager at Sacred Heart.

“The reality hits (recipients) when they are being admitted or wheeling back for their surgery that someone just died for them to live,” Seiger said.

But the stories of saved lives can make all the difference, Seiger said. They can help families recover from the tragic loss of a loved one.

Programs like the organ donation flag are making it easier for families to find meaning after the death of their loved ones and for recipients to find ways to tell their stories.

Some families take photos with the flag to thank their donors. Another family found another way to use the flag to honor their little boy before deciding to take him off life support for his organs to be harvested.

“We brought a flag over and we draped it over his bed,” Seiger said.

Sacred Heart also offers a spot on the Wall of Heroes to grieving families and celebrating recipients. The television in the hospital’s waiting room cycles through photos and brief paragraphs written for those who gave the gift of life.

“The wound is there and is much better healed through talking about it,” said Valerie Maury, director of family services at LifeCenter Northwest, the organ procurement organization in the region. “We want to encourage families to do all that.”

For Debi Hammel, talking has made all the difference in recovering from her daughter’s death.

Lorissa Green was struck and killed in 2009 when she was turning north onto U.S. 195 from Cheney-Spokane Road.

If she could go back and change everything, she would, Hammel said. But she found meaning in Lorissa’s death through organ and tissue donation. Hammel knew her daughter’s wishes. It had only taken a short conversation prior to the accident to know what her teenage daughter wanted in case of her death.

As Hammel mourned the loss of her daughter, Lorissa’s lungs, kidneys and corneas were whisked away to those who needed them. At last count, 19 lives were either saved or improved by Lorissa’s death.

“I’m just such an open book most of the time that any opportunity I get to share Lorissa, I feel like it makes me closer to her,” Hammel said.

Shortly after Lorissa’s death, Hammel was able to share her with Jolene Evans, a Mountlake Terrace, Wash., resident who received the girl’s lungs. Evans, 60, could only breathe with the help of oxygen tanks due to an autoimmune disease.

“Waiting for a donor is very hard because you have to wait for somebody to die,” Evans said.

She had started to embrace the possibility that she was going to die when she got the news that there was a pair of lungs waiting for her. Today, Evans has 54 percent lung capacity and has seen her son get married and the birth of two grandchildren.

Evans has since grown close to the Hammels, and said she still sees Lorissa everywhere – in “pennies from heaven” found on the sidewalks, in the photo in her kitchen that she occasionally has conversations with.

“Some days I think ‘I haven’t really talked to you, I better go sit and talk to you or something,’ ” Evans said.

And Hammel’s story may go on to save more lives. Lorissa’s death was a major contributor to push the rebuilding of the intersection where she died, one of the most dangerous in the county. Hammel has spoken publicly at many schools and before legislators.

Seiger said that while not every family member may be as open as Hammel, programs like the Wall of Heroes, the organ donor flag and others through LifeCenter Northwest can help families find peace one story at a time.

“They were able to save somebody’s life,” Seiger said. “They’re able to know that their loved one has helped to save people’s lives and didn’t die in vain.”

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