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How Northwest Hospital and Living Legacy Helped Me with My Wife’s Organ Donations

Posted Apr 25 2013 6:00am

Through the sadness of the cases that I see, I am constantly amazed by the strength and graciousness of the families of our organ, tissue and eye donors. As we wrap up Donate Life month, I thought it was important to share the story and viewpoint about donation from the perspective of a donor family. Below is an account from Chris, who I am grateful to for sharing his wife Sharon’s story, and the experience he went through when she became a donor:

sharon culotta

Sharon Culotta

“Many years ago as my wife, Sharon, and I were updating our drivers licenses after moving to a new home, we both checked the Organ Donor box on the application. We didn’t give it much thought and just said to each other, “You’re checking the organ donor box, aren’t you?” That was the extent of the conversation and I don’t believe we ever talked about it again.

So, on July 28, 2011, three days after my wife’s cardiac arrest, when the topic of organ donation was brought up as my wife’s brain was shutting down, it felt much more like my decision than hers. While I didn’t technically need to ask anyone else, I met with my children to discuss it, and then with my wife’s family. Fortunately everyone seemed to be in agreement that if we were going to lose Sharon, it would make sense to let our loss help other people so that some good could come out of our sudden and unexpected tragedy.

There is paperwork to be completed and pages of questions to answer, some of which can be quite sensitive and difficult for the Living Legacy representatives to even ask. Fortunately, being in a loving and committed relationship for over 30 years makes answering the questions a lot easier. It takes a long time to get through the paperwork and question period, and I remember my family being worried about me and sending someone around to check on me every so often.

Then the watch begins, with the organ recovery crew ready to take over as soon as the patient is certified as brain dead. This is a two-step process, as well, and about eight long hours passed between the initial assessment and the final certification that Sharon was Brain dead. The Northwest hospital and Living Legacy staffs were unbelievably supportive and patient, and tried to give us the time we needed to say goodbye, but you know they are anxious to do what needs to be done.

For the family, leaving a body that still has color, that still feels warm, that still has blood racing through its veins– that just doesn’t seem dead– is the hardest part. When my mother died earlier that same year, she was dead and there was no denying it, but in this situation, your brain had to convince your heart that the person you loved, who still appears to be alive, is actually dead and you need to find the strength to leave her. This was by far the hardest moment of my life.

The next day I was invited to come back before Sharon’s organs were harvested, but I could not bear to go through that agony of saying goodbye again. I stayed home.

Throughout our nightmare, the Northwest Hospital staff was exemplary. We were from the Towson area and had only previously gone to Towson hospitals, and I was a bit nervous about going to this unfamiliar hospital. But the staff was warm and caring, kind to my wife and kind to my family and friends who came to visit over the course of the 5 days. I am forever grateful. Living Legacy has also been incredible. I’ve been surprised at the continuous opportunities they provide to remember and honor your loved one long after the organs are harvested, when I figured they would be done with you. That’s just not the way it works. My family continues to stay involved with this great organization.

I was asked if I wanted to reach out to the recipients of my wife’s organs. I was hesitant because I didn’t want to know if the organs didn’t take or if the recipient had died. I just wanted to believe that everything thing went perfectly and that Sharon’s donation made a huge and lasting difference in the recipients life and the life of their families. Now that 21 months have passed, I wonder what has become of these people. I wonder if they ever wanted to reach out to me. I had decided that if the recipients reached out to me, I would definitely meet them, but I wasn’t going to initiate the process. In some ways I’m sad that they didn’t. I guess I didn’t want to invade their privacy and they didn’t want to invade mine. But I wish them the best and I pray that they are thriving. And, I’m glad that Sharon lives on in some way through them. “

-Written by Chris Culotta and Jessica Schram, RN, BSN, CPTC, The Living Legacy Foundation in-house coordinator for Sinai and Northwest hospitals

To schedule an appointment with one of our highly trained physicians and find out why LifeBridge Health is Baltimore's premiere health care organization, call 410-601-WELL.

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