My name is Jill Stephenson. I am a donor sister and mother. In July of 1982, my eleven-year old brother, J.T. was struck by a car and killed instantly. Two cars behind the one that hit him was a highway patrolman who administered CPR and saved him, temporarily.
Unfortunately, he was declared brain dead and removed from life support ten days later. Those ten days on life support helped prepare him to give the gift of life to strangers. When the doctors asked my family to consider donation we didn’t hesitate. We knew that if J.T. was able to make that decision for himself, he would have.
He was that kind of a kid; selfless, kind and always pulling for the underdog. In the state of Minnesota, where I lived at the time, this was at the very beginning of organ donation. Records were not officially kept until 1986.
In the organ donation world my family is considered pioneers for this reason. Several months after my brothers death, we received a letter from the family of one of his kidney recipients. I still remember standing in our living room with my mother, reading the letter and feeling bittersweet emotions, sorrow for our loss and joy for the family whose loved one was saved. In addition to his other kidney, my brothers eyes were also donated.
I was barely fifteen when my brother died, his gift of life stayed close to my heart for many years. Organ donation was a common term in my household. When I had my own son, I made sure it was something he had knowledge of. I wanted him to know about the uncle whom he would never meet and the lives he saved. I had no idea how their lives would eventually connect.
Hope Amidst Tragedy
One month after my son Ben graduated high school, he left home to join the ranks of the U.S. Army as an elite Ranger. Halfway through his third deployment, he was shot by a sniper. He underwent surgery overseas and survived his injuries long enough to make it back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. However, the trauma to his body would prove to be too much. In a twist of fate I never imagined, Ben was declared brain dead and I was asked to consider donating his organs.
As my mother sat with me when the doctors delivered this news, we couldn’t help being overcome with a sense of deja vu as it was the same date my brother was hit by the car twenty-seven years earlier.
A Life-Saving Call
There was no hesitation in my answer to the doctors question, but we did have to determine if Ben had noted his decision somewhere. He was 21 and his wishes would be honored if he had. We were able to locate the living will he completed before he left on his deployment. There was a question that asked, “Do you wish to be an organ donor?” Ben answered, “Yes.” The next question asked, “Which ones?” Ben wrote, “Any that are needed?”
Eight days after being wounded half-way across the world, Ben’s organs, bone, skin and tissue were donated, saving or enhancing the lives of sixty people. This is in addition to the six men he saved on the battlefield. In life and death, my son is a hero.
By a miraculous circumstance, I was able to designate a recipient for Ben’s heart. I have met the woman who received the heart of my 21 year-old Army Ranger son and placed my hand on her chest to feel Ben marching on.
I have also met the recipients of both of kidneys and his liver and remain connected to all of them almost nine years later. Organ donation has been a part of my life for most of my life. As often as possible, I encourage people to register to become organ donors.
Outlasting the Final Breath
Over the course of nearly forty years, I have seen sorrow become overshadowed by joy as organ recipients and their families expressed their gratitude to my family and to me. I know that the spirit and the legacy of J.T. and Ben will continue to live in those families as well as in the hearts of all who loved them in their brief but purpose filled lives.
In Max Lucado’s book called "Outlive Your Life", he says, “We are invited by a great God to do great works. He invites us to outlive our lives, not just in Heaven, but here on earth.” He adds, “Here’s a salute to a long life, goodness that outlives the grave and love that outlasts the final breath. May you live in such a way that your death is just the beginning of your life.”
When you or your loved one becomes an organ donor, their death is just the beginning for someone else and that, to me, is a beautiful ending.
We shared this inspiring story from Jill Stephenson as a part of our campaign highlighting individuals who truly embrace the "Outlive Yourself" message during National Donate Life Month.
If you'd like to learn about more ways to "Outlive Yourself" during this month, including registering to be an organ donor, please visit: http://taylorsgift.org/donatelifemonth/