“At about 10:30 at night on Dec. 30, 2008, we received a phone call that every family dreads.”
In a voice choking with emotion, Colleen Clark recalls the details of the nightmare that changed her life forever.
“Our beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Lauren Emily, had been struck by a car while crossing Hempstead Turnpike,” Clark said.
After hours of surgery, physicians informed the family they believed Lauren was brain dead.
Clark, now a retired Nassau County police officer, said her job, which required her to see “many battered and bruised and bloody bodies” didn’t prepare her for the sight of her own child lying in a hospital bed “with all kinds of tubes and machines keeping her alive.”
Approached by members of the organ donation network, she said she was confronted with a decision she never imagined she’d have to make: donating her daughter’s organs to save the lives of others.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Clark said. “But if she was brain dead, we decided we would donate her organs to help others. We knew Lauren would have wanted that.”
On New Year’s Eve, 2008, while others were preparing to celebrate a new year, Clark and her family were praying for a miracle. It never came. Lauren, a vivacious high school senior, died on Jan. 1, 2009.
Lauren’s liver and kidneys saved three lives. One, the aunt of one of Lauren’s friends who needed a liver, was a mother who is today a grandmother. A kidney recipient never answered the family’s request to meet.
“Some people feel really bad that somebody had to die for them to live,” Clark explained.
The third recipient was a child with a rare kidney disease who had been on dialysis since she was six months old.
Clark clutches a photo of the recipient along with a photo of her daughter.
“After she received one of Lauren’s kidneys, the family was able to go on their first vacation,” Clark said, “and Carlina was able to go swimming in a pool,” she said.
“Carlina is going to be 21 on Oct. 26.”
Clark, of Lido Beach, was one of four speakers who shared their personal experiences today at a ceremony held at Peconic Bay Medical Center to mark National Organ Donor Enrollment Day.
Since her daughter’s tragic accident in 2008, she has become an evangelist for organ donation.
Organ donation is something 92% of New Yorkers support — but only 35% of New Yorkers are registered as organ donors, said Amy Loeb, PBMC’s chief nursing officer. New York ranks last among the 50 states in the percentage of residents registered as organ donors.
Every 18 hours, someone dies waiting for an organ transplant, Loeb said.
Dr. Ken Mayer counts his blessings that he’s not among them.
Born with a rare genetic kidney disorder, he’d known since his teenage years he’d need a kidney transplant at some point.
“I went about my life. I became a doctor. I got married,” said Mayer, who heads up Peconic Bay Medical Center’s hospitalists — doctors employed by the hospital who oversee care for patients in the hospital.
When his wife Melissa was pregnant with their first child eight years ago, his nephrologist told him he needed to start thinking about finding a donor.
“My wife, while pregnant, got tested and we learned she was a match,” he said. “We could do a living donation,” he said, and avoid dialysis.
The pace of disease progression allowed the couple some time. They had their first daughter and two year later, another.
“Last spring, my nephrologist let us know it was time to do the testing and start this,” Mayer said.
“Fortunately, Melissa was still willing,” he said, to laughter from the audience at today’s event.
Last August, doctor’s removed one of his wife’s kidneys and transplanted it into his body.
“Her kidney has allowed me to continue on being a doctor, a husband, and a father to our two girls,” Mayer said.
Melissa Mayer said after a 4-6 week recovery, for a donor, “it’s nothing.” There’s been no change to her lifestyle. The recipient, on the other hand, has to be on lifelong immunosuppressive drugs. There’s a lot of follow-up for him, she said.
She said she had not given much thought to what it meant to be a donor. “He’s my husband, so of course I was going to give my kidney to him,” she said.
Post-op, when she was being wheeled to her room from recovery, the nurses at the nurses station “started clapping for me,” she said. “I was like, of course I was going to give my kidney to my husband,” she recalled. “And they said, no — you saved a life today.
“Until that moment, it didn’t occur to me that I had the power inside my body to save a life.”
George Dozier of Riverhead, an employee at the Riverhead hospital for 27 years, has already been an organ recipient. When he donated blood during a hospital blood drive in 1995, he learned his liver was failing.
“I thought I was going to die, you know,” he recalled today. He received a liver transplant in 2004, he said.
Dozier said he tried to get in touch with his donor family, but he never heard back. “I was kind of sad,” he said. “I wanted to say thank you. You don’t get a second chance in life every day, you know,” he said.
“Now I need a third chance. I need a kidney because the medicine I had to take killed my kidneys,” Dozier said.
He’s now on dialysis three days a week. It’s a process that takes three-and-a-half hours each time. It’s keeping him alive while he waits for a donor match.
Today was Dozier’s birthday and coworkers presented him with a cake and a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You,” as he smiled self-consciously in front of the audience.
“I’ve been here 27 years and everybody in here had my back. I really appreciate that,” he said quietly.
“With only 35 percent of New Yorkers actually registered as organ donors, raising awareness about the importance of organ donation is critical,” said Andy Mitchell, the hospital’s president and CEO. “Receiving a vital organ is often a life or death situation for the recipient, and by simply registering to be a potential match, you have the ability to provide the greatest gift – to save someone’s life.”
New York residents age 16 and older can register to be organ donors by joining the New York State Donate Life Registry.
This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.