The most wonderful gift

For Rhonda Berger, every day is a reminder of how fragile and special life is. In 2015, Rhonda’s daughter, Jennifer Spurgeon, was honored on the 2016 Donate Life Rose Parade float and Rhonda was in attendance. She shares her unforgettable experience regularly through the Indiana Donor Network and with our readers here.

"My story began about ten years ago, when Jennifer, my youngest daughter, got her learner's permit. I sat down with her and we talked about the question she was going to be asked when she went to the BMV to get her permit. That question being, ‘Do you want to be an organ donor?’ She understood what it meant and her comment was, ‘Why not? When I die I'm not going to need them anymore.’ Of course, at the time you never think about that statement ever becoming a reality, especially at that young age.

For 19 years, Jennifer loved life, and dreamed of someday becoming an animal caretaker, getting married, having a couple of kids and having three cats. She loved the companionship of animals, so once she graduated from high school she headed off to International Business College in Fort Wayne to set her dream into motion.

Jennifer was enjoying each day, looking forward to becoming a veterinary technician, when it all came to a halt. In the early morning of January 23, 2009, a fire broke out in the bottom floor of her apartment complex and swept up into the apartment where Jennifer and her two roommates were living, trapping them inside. The girls were eventually rescued and resuscitated but, unfortunately, Jennifer did not respond to treatment and was pronounced brain dead the following day. Knowing what her decision was, while waiting for the brain scan to verify her condition, I told the nurse that, if worse came to worst, they needed to know Jennifer was a donor.

Testing was done, potential matches were made for three of her organs, and the surgery to recover her organs was to take place the following day. As I tried to sleep that night, I kept thinking about how Jennifer's life was cut so short and how our lives were forever changed. Through my tears and heartache, I wondered what it must be like for those three people who got the phones calls letting them know their second chance at life was about to happen. Were they making phone calls to family members telling them the news? Were they rushing around getting their bags packed to head to the hospital? What thoughts were going through their minds right now? I could only try to imagine how they felt having their phone ring with the news they have been waiting to hear.

In the seven years since we lost Jennifer, I have met both of her kidney recipients and received a letter from her liver recipient. For me, those three people have been the positive piece to that tragic day. Meeting them and hearing the story of what their life was like before and after the transplant helped me to cope with Jennifer's death by knowing a part of her continues to live on in the lives of others. Organ donation also provided comfort for our family in knowing that, even in death, she had made a difference in someone's life.

I can only try to imagine what it must be like for those on the transplant list to wait for that life-saving gift, not knowing if it will come in time. If it were me, or someone in my family, I'd hope and pray that gift gave us that second chance at life. As a nurse, I have seen people who are so sick that an organ transplant is their last chance for survival. Some are young children who have so much life ahead of them to experience yet. Some are adults who have young children and desperately want to live to see their kids grow up and have a life of their own. Those who are older and have so many life experiences to share with others are hoping to get that second chance to make a difference in the world. That wait time can be just a few weeks or even several years. For some, that wait is too long and they die before the transplant happens or they have become so sick that a transplant is no longer an option for them.

Organ donation is a wonderful gift that you can give someone should your life be beyond saving and the circumstances are right. Why not carry on your own legacy by helping someone else in need? Your decision to be a donor can have a positive impact on your family as well as the lives of the recipient and their family. Together we can help to shorten the wait time for those in need of that life-saving gift and maybe even someday that list can be a thing of the past."

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