A somber monument etched with thousands of names stands on the southeast corner of Library Square at 300 East 500 South in Salt Lake City. It’s a long, serpentine stretch of glass panels that extend along the east side of the block, edged with a quiet landscape of flowers, trees and grass. The Celebration of Life Monument was developed by Utah’s “Donate Life Coalition,” to memorialize the names of persons who donated their organs, eyes, and/or tissue (including bone) as a gift of life to others. The first names were etched in 2004 when the monument was created. About 500 to 700 names are added each year. A conservative calculation suggests that nearly 10,000 names are memorialized there.
A few weeks ago I stood at the monument, holding a single red rose as I stared at the glass panels, wondering which of the thousands of names I should thank. It’s possible that somewhere among them is the person who donated bone so I could be healed.
I’d just finished telling my story at a Utah Donor Connect meeting, held each April to celebrate National Donate Life month. Ten years ago I began to lose the use of my shoulders and arms as a searing pain settled into my neck. Within a short time I could barely sit at my computer to write. I couldn’t pick up a grandchild, couldn’t hold my husband’s hand, and hardly made it through each day because of pain. My quality of life diminished as horrific headaches, decreasing mobility, and pain and numbness increased.
My surgeon explained that “cadaver bone” would be used to replace a disintegrated disc in my neck. I was startled with his explanation, but ready for the relief. During surgery, he removed the failed disc, replaced it with that tiny piece of donated bone, fused it to the vertebrae above and below with a metal plate, and sewed me up. As soon as I got past the groggy stupor of anesthesia, I realized the pain was gone. The immediacy was shocking, especially as I realized that a pain-free life had been returned to me because a stranger gave an ultimate gift, obtained at a profound price.
Standing with other recipients and donors at the monument, I laid my rose against one of the glass panels, again grateful to the stranger who donated the bone lodged in my neck. I solemnly considered how difficult it must have been for the family to have the courage, even in their moment of terrific grief, to honor that person’s request, or to make that decision themselves.
At a previous year’s celebration, I heard a donor’s family member explain it this way: “We had lost him; he was gone. In the madness of the loss, we longed for some way to make sense of it. So when the thought of donation was presented, we realized this was a way we could bring a small piece of goodness into a very dark moment.” She added that as their grieving somewhat subsided, a calm comfort that they’d chosen to do something right in the face of tragedy grew, eventually giving them consolation they didn’t know was possible.
The “Donor” designation is on my driver’s license. It’s my attempt to pay it forward. So is my invitation to you to examine your thoughts about becoming a donor. Discuss it with your loved ones. Serious, curious, sobering questions will quickly spring up. Fortunately, a long collection of questions and answers is listed on the Utah Donor Connect site at www.idslife.org/faqs/ along with other information designed to help you make an informed decision. The other members of Utah’s Donate Life Coalition — Utah Lions Eye Bank and the U of U Whole Body program — also invite inquiries on their websites.
If your discussions incline you to want to donate, first tell someone. Then follow through with the instructions on the site to make it official so your family won’t have to guess.
Donation is never an easy topic to discuss. It means we must acknowledge our mortality. We prefer to believe we’ll live forever, or at least for a long, long time.
In a profound way, donating enables us to do that.