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Tissue Donation: From heartbreak to healing

The gift of life- it’s one of the most self-less gifts a person can give. You may have heard about organ donation, but you likely don’t know as much about tissue donation.

In Iowa last year, surgeons performed twice as many tissue transplants as they did organ transplants, and the need for donated tissue keeps increasing. 

This is the story of two families who know how the giving the gift of life can bring both heartbreak and healing.

Beth Patton started her letter with a simple line, “Dear Donor Family”. It was August 2007, and her daughter Kelly was recovering from surgery on her knee. “I had thought about your loved one long before the surgery took place,” she continued. She didn’t know who would read her letter and didn’t know if she would even get a response.

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Becky Montogomery can’t help but smile when she talks about her son Gary.

“He was 26, and he was just starting to be a man. He still had a lot of kid in him, you know,” she explained.  Her smile almost hide the tears that come, as she continued. “Every Mother’s Day, he would hunt me down wherever I was, and he would bring me a card, and it would always be addressed to Mama Bear,” she said with a laugh. “I never knew the significance of that.”

She wouldn`t know what that meant until after Gary took his own life in June 2005. What followed was unimaginable grief but also, the chance to take her life in a direction she never knew lie ahead.

“A nurse came up and told me Gary had an opportunity to donate tissue,” Becky explained. “I asked if she meant organs, and she said no.”

Because of the way Gary died, he wasn’t eligible to donate organs, but he could donate his tissue, from the valves of his heart to the bones in his arm. “They were gonna take the bone from the shoulder to the wrist, and they would replace it with plastic so you wouldn’t be able to tell,” she said. “We could still have an open casket.”

The family buried Gary and marked his grave with a headstone shaped like the congo drums he loved to play. They said goodbye with a promise written in the stone “Until we meet again”.

“I feel good that there are lots of people walking around with a little piece of Gary in them,” Becky said. “It makes their life better and enriched because he was here.”

The Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation is a non-profit organization, and the nation’s leading tissue bank. Since its inception in 1987, MTF has recovered tissue from more than 90,000 donors and distributed more than 5 million grafts for transplantation. The New Jersey lab is where much of the donated tissue is processed,  from cartilidge to bone to skin.

Unlike with organs, donors of tissue don`t have to die in a hospital to keep the donation viable, and a tissue donation can be stored for several years before transplant. An organ donor can save the lives of about 8 people, while one tissue donor can change the lives of 50 people. It’s all because of the choice a family makes when a loved one dies.

“A lot of people don’t know they have human tissue that was donated by a family,” she said. And that’s why she has made awareness her mission. She was recruited by MTF to speak at hospitals about tissue donation coming from a family`s perspective. “I had one hospital administrator tell me that he never knew what nurses on the front line went through until hearing the story,” she said.

Jerri Harding works with many donor and recipient families through MTF and says Becky and Gary’s story is inspirational to her.

“When she speaks I ask her to share the story of Gary’s death each and every time, and that`s really hard to ask someone to do that,” Harding explained. “So she’s inspirational to me in the strength and willingness to do that.”

Through her work, Becky meets hundreds of people who have received donated tissue, though she`s never met one who received a donation from Gary. She says that doesn’t bother her, because she hears Gary’s story in every recipient of donated tissue.

One of the recipients she has met is Kelly McGuire, Beth Patton`s daughter.

“My leg gave out on me, and it was just the worst feeling in the world,” Kelly said about the injury that happened as she was getting out of her school desk.

Kelly would need donor tissue to repair her leg and waited months to find the right one.

“On one hand, Kelly needed that tissue,” Beth Patton explained. “But on the other hand we knew someone would have to lose their life to give her the gift of the tissue.”

After her surgery, Beth got information about contacting the family of Kelly`s donor, through a new MTF program called Linking Lives. She wrote them right away. “A part of your loved one, is now a part of my loved one,” Beth wrote. It would take a full three years, but finally a response. It came from the family of a man in his 40`s who died in a motorcycle accident. “It was a beautiful letter with a beautiful photograph,” Beth explained. “Of course the family was heartbroken at his loss, but they were very happy to make Kelly whole again.”

Kelly’s leg is healed now, and she`s proud to show her scars. And seeing her lets Becky know she did the right thing the day Gary died. Her work since showed her what Gary meant when he called her Mama Bear.

“You would fight to the death for your children, and they know it,” Becky said. ‘And that’s when I knew what he meant by it.”

Beth Patton knows the feeling.

Here’s how you can get more information about organ and tissue donation.

The Iowa Donor Registry- http://www.iowadonorregistry.org/

The Illinois Donor Registry- http://www.donatelifeillinois.org/

Read more about the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation- http://www.mtf.org/