Altar honoring organ donors
An altar created to honor organ donors for Día de los Muertos 2022. Photo courtesy Anne State

Nearly 24 years ago, I woke up with a gut feeling that something was not right — an awareness that only someone who has lost the closest person in their life will ever understand. What I did not know then was that the love of my life at that time — my fiancé — was already dead.  

He left my house on Memorial Day evening to report for duty at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, but never made it. A terrible car crash left his brain so severely injured that he died in the operating room. With my life upended by tragedy, I realized I had to keep my fiancé’s memory alive any way I could.    

Opinion logo

I eventually found my life’s purpose in the field of organ donation, working with grieving families whose loved ones have just passed away. I currently serve as family services director at Lifesharing, the organ procurement organization for San Diego, where I lead a team of passionate individuals who walk alongside families in grief. 

Understandably, many of these families are not able to embrace donation immediately, wishing only to restore what has been broken. Sitting with a parent whose child has suffered brain death, I know I cannot answer their prayers of seeing that child walk out of the hospital.  

What I can offer, however, is the opportunity for their loved one to live on through organ donation. To me, this is a gift. My own fiancé died in a way that did not allow him to become an organ donor — his story ended tragically and abruptly that day in 1999.   

According to our surveys of donor families, 55% choose to donate because it allows their loved ones to leave an amazing legacy. I specifically remember a letter written by the mother of an 18-year-old organ donor. In her note to the recipients, she wrote that she takes comfort knowing her son lives on through them.  

Indeed, a person’s impact on the world does not have to end with their passing. Recognizing this, our organ donation process is full of ritual. Before donation takes place, we formally present the family with a hero medal in honor of their loved one. We also hold a moment of silence for each deceased organ donor in the operating room, prior to the recovery of organs.   During this pause, our nurses read aloud a tribute to each hero.  

My colleagues and I are privileged to work in this space. We wake every morning with the expressed goals of saving lives and bringing solace to the loved ones left behind. We perform this balancing act daily. 

When a hospital patient’s life cannot be saved, it’s our job to see if the patient’s organs can help people on the transplant waiting list. Working with hospitals, other organ procurement organizations and the United Network for Organ Sharing — the organization that matches organ donors and recipients — we keep the transplant system running every minute, every day, every year.

The Health Resources and Services Administration, which is the government body overseeing the transplant system, recently announced a modernization plan to better help patients on the waiting list. This is a wonderful goal and we should make sure that any changes are carefully evaluated by all system stakeholders, especially patients.  

Sadly, there is no easy solution to end organ waitlists. Fewer than 50% of California drivers are registered to donate their organs after death. And most people do not die in a way that enables donation. To become an organ donor, one must pass away in a hospital and, even then, there are many more medical restrictions to consider.   

At the end of the day, systemwide collaboration remains the best way to help patients on the transplant waiting list. Rewriting medical laws will not magically save more lives. We must work with the generous donor families we have, encouraging as many as possible to donate. That happens one conversation at a time, by people like my team who pour their hearts and souls into this work every day.    

April 30 is Donor Remembrance Day. We pay tribute to the heroes who have given the gift of life and we honor their families, too. In their darkest moments, these families chose to be a light for others by supporting organ and tissue donation.

Wendy Garrison is the family services director at Lifesharing, the federally-designated organ procurement organization serving San Diego and Imperial counties.