Gif of Life: Organ Recipients often "feel" emotions of donors
By Elaine Thompson | Telegram & Gazette
NORTHBORO — It's been 12 years, but Penny Brown is still brought to tears every time she stops to think that had an Ohio teen not registered to become an organ donor, chances are good she would not be alive.
When the young man, named Scott, a practical joker with a lot of friends, died in a car accident at age 22, one of his kidneys was flown to Rhode Island Hospital to replace one of Ms. Brown's kidneys destroyed by polycystic kidney disease, one of the most common and incurable genetic diseases. Without the successful transplant, Ms. Brown said, she surely would have died just like her mother, grandmother, maternal aunts, uncles and cousins.
Her mother was 39 when she died from PKD, the same age as Ms. Brown when her kidneys failed. A year later, in 1998, she received the life-saving transplant.
“He's part of me. It's such a gift of life ... so unselfish,” Ms. Brown said, quietly sobbing during a recent telephone interview from her home on Centre Drive. “I appreciate life more. I appreciate every day. I appreciate friends and family. And, little things and material things just don't bother me anymore.”
Since her transplant, Ms. Brown has generously volunteered with the New England Donor Bank, mostly trying to encourage people to register as donors. She was instrumental in arranging for the agency's “Making Memories,” a traveling 29-piece multimedia art exhibit on display at the Northboro Library through September. The contributors to the exhibit are 20 adults and children from around New England who have connections to organ and tissue donation.
Included in the exhibit is a lithograph of the painting “The First Successful Transplant,” by Joel Babb of Maine. It occurred on Dec. 23, 1954, at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston between twin brothers, Richard and Ronald Herrick, Rutland natives who were living in Northboro at the time of the historic transplant.
“I want to get more people registered as donors and I felt that if they see the personal stories attached to each exhibit, it will have a greater impact,” said Ms. Brown.
Two area contributors to the exhibit are Arlene C. Swirsky, a 64-year-old author from Paxton, and Wanda Murray of Putnam, a photographer and owner of The Artistic Sole, a store that sells rehearsal and performance apparel for gymnasts, skaters and dancers.
The two women have become close friends since meeting 18 months after Ms. Swirsky received a kidney from Mrs. Murray's late husband, Ed, after he died at age 43 in 2003 from a freak accident while trying to move a washing machine from the basement to the first floor of the couple's home.
Ms. Swirsky, 64, who was also born with polycystic kidney disease, is exhibiting her second book, published in 2007, “Rediscovering My Inner Bitch.” The book started as a journal a week after she was told in 2001 that she needed a kidney transplant.
Ms. Swirsky said people either love the title or hate it. She said it is her way of describing the strong self-advocate one has to become when facing difficult and life-threatening situations. She wrote her first book, “One Brief Shining Moment,” in 2001, to help her move on with her life from a deep depression caused by the death of her 5-year-old daughter, who died of a rare genetic disease in 1977.
She said when she is faced with difficult situations she has had to dig down and find something that's not part of her nature and get really tough. She said people don't always like what you say, but you have to stand up for yourself.
“I rediscovered the inner bitch that I had put away for several years,” she explained. “The bottom line is you must be your own advocate. You must take care of yourself. You must learn what you need to know.” The book, she said, gives people who are waiting for a transplant information about what to expect.
Mrs. Murray is exhibiting photographs she took during a visit to the Grand Canyon with her three children a couple of years after her husband's death. Those photographs helped her realize that she has a talent and passion for photography. She said her hope is that people will see that even after such a tragedy, life goes on.
Mrs. Murray said she and her husband never discussed organ donation, but she immediately knew when the doctors asked what her husband would have wanted to do. His liver, heart and second kidney went to three other recipients.
Mr. Murray was a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, a certified nurse's aide and security guard. His dream was to become a registered nurse.
“One time, a young girl drowned and Ed worked on her for over an hour to try to bring her back,” Mrs. Murray said. “That stuck in my mind when they came and asked me if he wanted to be a donor. I knew there was no other choice based on just how much he wanted to save people's lives.”
It's rare for a recipient and donor or a donor's family to meet. Letters between the two are sent to the New England Organ Bank to be read before they are sent along to make sure each person's privacy is maintained.
Ms. Swirsky and Mrs. Murray decided to meet at a Dunkin' Donuts in Auburn, 18 months after the transplant, on Aug. 28, 2004.
Ms. Swirsky said she had given up coffee to help her stop smoking more than 30 years earlier. Since the transplant she has become addicted to coffee and doughnuts, something she never ate. And she can't get enough garlic and broccoli, two foods she never liked, but were favorites of Mr. Murray.
She said that when Mrs. Murray walked into Dunkin' Donuts, she pointed at her and started laughing.
“I said, ‘What's so funny?' She said, ‘Ed used to be addicted to coffee and doughnuts.' For some reason I became addicted to them as well. It's not uncommon. People who meet their donor family often find out they developed tastes of the donor. It does happen. I can't explain it.”