April is National Donate Life Month, a celebration of the generosity of those who have saved lives by becoming organ, tissue, marrow and blood donors.
It’s a subject that’s near and dear to Marta Baldwin’s heart.
Three years ago, the Bothell woman’s 12-year-old son, Cole, became a donor.
"It happened one morning when Cole was up early finishing his homework and suddenly succumbed to a brain aneurysm," recalls Baldwin. "Although the doctors at Harborview did everything they could to save his life, Cole was pronounced brain dead the next day. It was the most devastating thing that could have ever happened to our family. In the midst of our grief, we found ourselves faced with a decision to make. Should we say ‘yes’ to organ donation and give others the chance to live? Or say ‘no’ and just watch him die."
Baldwin continues to describe what was going through her mind at the time.
She says, "My first gut response was ‘no’ because it came from the protective mother instinct and all I could think of was that I didn’t want anyone to take my baby away. But, then, after awhile I realized that choosing to have him be a donor was the right thing to do. Our family decided that it was what Cole would have wanted."
The Bothell woman describes her son as the type of child who believed in playing by the rules and being fair.
He wanted everyone to have a chance and would practice what he preached in the schoolyard during recess when playing games.
In the end, Cole saved five people’s lives with the donation of his heart, liver, lungs and kidneys.
His corneas remain in a sight bank where they are currently waiting for a recipient.
Eight months after Cole died, Baldwin felt she needed to do something to get through the pain.
She wrote letters to each of the recipients and sent them to Life Center Northwest, the donor network agency involved in Cole’s case.
The organization passed the notes on to the recipients.
"Everything is done anonymously," explains the local woman. "I didn’t know if any of the recipients wanted to meet us, but we wanted to meet them."
Eventually, arrangements were made for the Baldwin family to meet with two of the recipients.
The first was Annie, a young woman from Redmond, who received Cole’s liver when she was 19.
Annie had been very ill with a liver disease and she was close to dying. With a new liver and a lengthy recovery involving a number of complications, she survived and is doing well now.
"When I met Annie, we just talked for hours," comments Baldwin. "We told each other our stories and there were lots of tears, but also so much joy. I came away from the meeting happy in my heart for the first time since Cole died. And since then, Annie and I have become very close. In fact, we do presentations together in the schools about organ donation."
The second recipient Baldwin met was Judy, a 59- year-old Washington woman suffering from pulmonary fibrosis.
Thanks to the lungs she received from Cole, the woman is now living a fully functional life and enjoying her favorite pastime – golf.
"Judy had such a low quality of life before her double lung transplant," comments Baldwin. "She was on an oxygen tank and could never go very far without being hooked up to it. We met and it was an equally rewarding encounter, full of much emotion."
Among those individuals that Baldwin did not get a chance to meet were the two people who received Cole’s kidneys and Robbie, a 15-year-old California boy who was the recipient of Cole’s heart.
It was Robbie’s second heart transplant, as he had undergone the same procedure when he was an infant.
"He made a great recovery from the second transplant," says Baldwin, "and was back in school and doing really well.
Within eight months, however, he developed lymphoma cancer and died. It was a tragedy, as he had gone through so much and was thriving with his new heart. We were so very sad when we heard the news."
According to Baldwin, there is a desperate need for donors, with the kidney being the organ in highest demand, due to the prevalence of diabetes.
She explains that there are three statistics that are most important in the world of donors. The first is the number 100,000, which signifies the number of people waiting for a life-saving transplant in the U.S.
The second is 18, which stands for the number of individuals who die each day waiting for a transplant.
And the third is 50 plus, which represents the power of one person to save or enhance the lives of 50 or more people through donations of all major organs, skin, tissue, bone, blood and corneas.
So why aren’t there more donors? Baldwin explains that the reasons range from lack of awareness and education to fear.
She says, "People are afraid that the doctor won’t try as hard to save them or their loved ones if he or she knows they’re organ donors. This is wrong.
"Doctors will do everything they can do to save a life. And what people need to know is that those involved in organ procurement work independently and separately from the doctors."
She adds, "These people are amazing. They treat you with the utmost respect and they follow through with the families, offering counseling and their full support every step of the way and then later on as well. I have nothing but good things to say about Life Center Northwest and how they handled things."
Baldwin has seen firsthand the good that can come from being a donor and the experience has inspired her to help educate the public on organ donation.
As an advocate and spokesperson, she reaches out to people and shares Cole’s story to show the power that one person has to make a difference.
She adds, "Cole’s legacy now lives on, not only in our wonderful memories of him, but in the lives of the people he helped save and in the lives of their friends and families as well."
For information about registering to become an organ, eye and tissue donor, visit www.donatelifetoday.