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A Valentine's Thought

I am in my office today, Saturday February 14th, finishing an article about organ donation for Reader's Digest. It features the story of a Burnaby single mother, Simone Harty, who on June 14th, 2007, made a parent's most wrenching decision to turn off the life support of her only child and son,  17-year-old Elliott, and to donate his organs.

Elliott's accomplishments in his short life are the sort that would make any parent proud -  award-winning pianist and musician, passionate photographer, inventive cook, avid reader, aspiring videographer, a handsome highschool bon-vivant who was everyone's best friend.

A little over a week before he died he had earned his motorcycle licence and with money he saved from two jobs at restaurants, he bought a 750 cc Kawasaki - a very large bike for a growing kid. In the 7 days he'd had the bike, he'd driven it short distances to his school, to his job at a restaurant on Burnaby Mountain, to friends' homes. On the day of his accident it had been in the garage all day because it was raining. It was the final weeks of school. The next day Elliott had his Grade 9 piano exam. He cooked a curry dinner for 20 friends at his home and when his mother went to a dance class, he went over to friends. He and his mother last spoke on his cellphone at around 11 pm when he said he had a couple of beers and he was getting a ride home with a friend who was sober. He sounded fine. She went to bed. He came in just before midnight.

Simone thought Elliot was safely asleep when the RCMP knocked on her door at 1 am.  A motorist had reported a street light down across the Barnett Highway. When the police investigated, a mortally wounded Elliott, with a massive head injury, and his smashed motorcycle were found in the ditch near the busted lamp standard. It was about 3 minutes from his home. Simone will never know what really happened but assumes Elliott must have taken the bike for a quick spin just after midnight and lost control on the still-slick pavement.

Stories like Elliott's are painful for anyone to hear, young or old. We all know of teenagers whose lives ended far too soon. We ache for parents like Simone whose grief we can only just imagine. When I was growing up, I knew at least eight in my peer group who died before adulthood, including five members of our highschool football team who died on their Grad night. For my husband, it was at least 6 in the school years from Grade 8 on. One in particular I still think of from time to time -- one of the most beautiful and popular girls in school, Cheryl Bull, who died on the night of her 18th birthday, the passenger of her older brother, who also died.

But I am also the mother of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old and these are scary transition years as we try to get them through the minefield of cocky, over-confident adolescence, tempering their swaggering invincibility with pleas for caution and common sense. Kate, my eldest, has already lost three in her peer group. I pray that that may be her final tally when she looks back. You do a lot of praying when you have teenagers, not just for them, but for their whole bevy of exuberant, vivacious, exasperating, blossoming friends.

For Simone, two things now give outlet to her grief. She is lobbying for changes to motorcycle licensing in BC, urging the creation of a graduated program similar to that for car drivers and for restrictions on motorcycle size for new drivers. And she wants more people to register to be organ donors. BC has one of the highest registration rates in Canada, but still only 17 per cent of citizens have registered. The rate in the rest of Canada is around 12 per cent. It is not near enough. Some 250 Canadians die on the waiting list for transplants each year.

For Simone, the fact that Elliott's organs saved three other people's lives gives some solace to her grief. She treasures an anonymous thank you letter from the person who received his kidney. "I will cherish and take care of my new kidney and treat it like a baby," the note said. She hasn't heard from the others but they are constantly in her thoughts and she hopes they are doing well. She knows it is hard to write a thank you note to someone whose loved one's death enabled you to live. She is not judgemental.

But on Valentine's Day, with images of hearts and love all around, I think the most meaningful way we could emulate the giving spirit of the saint whose name we celebrate, would be to register as an organ donor. In BC, it is very easy. Just go to BC Transplant Society, www.transplant.bc.ca, and click on the online registration where you enter in your care card number.  Other provinces are in various stages of getting online registration. Just google organ transplantation combined with your province name and you'll find the process in your jurisdiction.

Of course, it doesn't remove the tragedy of an untimely death like Elliott's, nor remove the midnight fears of any parent whose teenage child has not yet come home, but it does do something.  As a writer, I'm reluctant to end on the cliché of a bumper sticker, but in this case it says it as good or better than I can say: "Don't take your organs to Heaven; Heaven knows we need them here."



Posted on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 01:40PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

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