Ann Linehan of Melrose received a pleasant surprise last week — with an emphasis on surprise —when she opened a Melrose Free Press “Breaking News” e-mail alert.
“I knew nothing about this,” she laughed, telling the Free Press this week that, “I opened up my e-mail and saw the breaking news alert from the Free Press and nearly passed out and thought ‘What the heck is this?’ Then I couldn’t find out anything about it [the award] until later, when I did a Google search and found out some info about it.”
Turns out Linehan was quietly nominated for the award by her friend and fellow Melrose resident, state Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, who felt Linehan should be recognized for the very public — yet very personal — work she has done to raise awareness about organ and tissue donation.
In April 2008, Linehan’s daughter Laura, 20, died while awaiting a liver transplant. She and Ann had moved to Jacksonville, Fla. in January 2008 in hopes of receiving a liver transplant sooner and to save Laura’s life (“Mother, daughter head to Florida in search of liver transplant,” Free Press, Feb. 21, 2008). In a bitter irony, a liver donor was found for Laura, but she died from liver failure just before a transplant could take place.
With help from many fellow Melrosians, Ann Linehan started Donate Life Melrose in 2008, with one mission: increasing awareness and promoting organ and tissue donation. Group members are especially visible in Melrose — particularly for their signature, green, “Donate Life Melrose” T-shirts, green being the official color for organ and tissue donation awareness — presenting information about organ donation at city events on an ongoing basis.
“Ann is a devoted and loving mother who has demonstrated profound courage and strength to crusade for the cause of her daughter Laura’s life — organ donation,” said Rep. Clark in a press release issued by her office Friday, April 23. “I am thrilled that the MCSW recognized Ann’s efforts and will be honoring her with the distinguished Unsung Heroine award. Ann Linehan is an extraordinary individual and she exemplifies an unsung heroine.”
In a press release, a spokeswoman for the MCSW explained how women like Linehan were chosen to receive the Unsung Heroine award: “These women, chosen from hundreds of nominations this year, come from cities and towns across the commonwealth, and will be recognized for their outstanding contributions to their organizations and communities.”
It takes a village …
As one such organization, Donate Life Melrose has 15-20 “very active members,” Linehan said. When the group has a public event, all members are emailed and Linehan said 30-40 people typically respond, helping on an as-needed basis.
When discussing the “Unsung Heroine” award, Linehan deflected praise for herself, saying instead that the people who have supported her efforts to raise awareness about organ donation deserve the credit.
“I’m very flattered and excited,” she said. “I know the reason I received this is because of my work on organ donor awareness — and being April, it’s a big month — but there are so many people who’ve worked so hard to help me with this,” she explained. Her reference to April being a “big month,” refers to the anniversary of Laura’s death as well as April beingOrgan Donor Awareness Month.
“I have a reason to do this; it’s very personal for me,” she continued. “But I have so many friends and hard-working individuals in Melrose who have full-time jobs and families, and they’re putting in all this time. But we’re really making a difference. Every time I go out and speak, people tell me that they’ve heard our story. A lot of people are telling me, ‘After I heard you speak I went online and registered [to be an organ donor].’”
Linehan said she does two to three speaking engagements a month, all over greater Boston. That will soon increase now that the New England Organ Bank has a new liaison for its organ donation registry, a person that Linehan will be working with.
“If you have heard a personal story, you’re more likely to become a donor,” Linehan explained.
Working with lawmakers
Raising awareness about organ and tissue donation doesn’t stop with Linehan’s speaking engagements. In addition, she’s taken on lobbying legislators in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Legislation called “Laura’s Law,” filed by Rep. Clark, who was the bill’s lead sponsor, was approved by the House in February. The bill calls for changing state income tax forms to include organ donation information as well as the ability for taxpayers to register as a donor; the creation of a state donation account for organ donation awareness and education; and the creation of a state advisory council focused on public education about organ donation. The bill will also study the feasibility of allowing residents to sign on as an organ donor when they register to vote.
While the bill passed the House easily, ever since “Laura’s Law” went to the state Senate, the bill has been stalled in committee. Which doesn’t make Linehan happy.
“I’m really frustrated that the bill that’s passed the House is now in the Senate’s Ways and Means [Committee],” she said, adding that she and others remain vigilant about seeing the bill made law and don’t intend to see it tabled. “The American Liver Foundation is also putting forth an effort in getting it passed.”
Meanwhile, through a family legislative connection in Connecticut, Linehan is involved in the progress of a similar bill filed there.
“My cousin, Tom Drew, he’s a state rep there,” Linehan explained. She recently traveled to Connecticut to testify in favor of the bill before the Connecticut House of Representatives.
‘She would be proud of me’
When asked what her late daughter would think of Linehan’s Unsung Heroine award, Linehan was reflective.
“She would be very excited and very proud of me. It was what she always wanted to do,” she said. “She used to tell me she wanted to be Laura Dempsey,” Linehan said with a chuckle. “Laura [Dempsey] worked for the American Liver Foundation and just recently accepted a new position with the New England Organ Bank, and has run the Boston Marathon for the past six years in honor of Laura.
“Laura spent her life as an advocate for organ donation, and I will continue to champion this cause,” Linehan said. “I still have this Ziploc bag with green [organ donation awareness] ribbons that she passed out in school, anyplace really, and took donations for the ribbons. When she was at Nazareth Academy, she had green ribbons all over that school.”
Linehan will be honored at a State House ceremony on Wednesday, May 19 — the day before her birthday — along with 99 other Unsung Heroines chosen from across the state. As for all her work on organ donation awareness and education, Linehan said quietly, “It really doesn’t make it feel any better, but I feel it’s the right thing to do. I feel it’s my social obligation.
“Last Monday, I was at the Boston Marathon watching my niece Kelly and Laura Dempsey run in memory of Laura,” Linehan reflected. “I was at the American Liver Foundation’s spot, cheering with others and I met a 12-year-old boy and his father. The son’s skin was so discolored, because he was so jaundiced. He has been listed since last July for a new liver. His father said it has been such a long wait and it feels so much longer than it actually has been. I looked at him and the anguish in his eyes made me feel like I was looking in a mirror. It was so familiar. I thought to myself, ‘How can I not help?’ This father is busy keeping his son alive. Trying to create awareness does not make me feel better, as I said, but it is the right thing to do.
“I also thought about Laura,” Linehan continued, “and if she was here, she would be the one getting the award and I would have said, ‘Way to go Laura!’”
For more information about the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, visit mass.gov/women or contact the MCSW at 617-626-6520 or email@example.com. To sign up to be an organ and/or tissue donor, visit the state Registry of Motor Vehicles website at rmv.state.ma.us, or the website of the New England Donor Bank, at donatelifenewengland.org. To receive breaking news e-mail alerts from the Melrose Free Press, send an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.