It was summer 2006, and Bloomberg sports reporter Curtis Eichelberger sat on his sofa, wondering where his next story would come from. It was the off season, and a story on television caught his eye. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, at the time the top paid player in the NFL, was rehabbing after a devastating and potentially career ending injury the season before. In a post-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Palmer had just released a 66-yard pass to receiver Chris Henry when Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into his left knee, tearing two ligaments and dislocating his kneecap. Carson’s injury occurred just 10 days after he had signed a six-year, $119 million contract extension. What piqued Curtis’ curiosity that day was the mention that Palmer’s knee had been mended using a donor tendon.
It was summer 2006, and I sat on my new Pottery Barn knock-off sofa, wondering where the rest of my life would come from. I was at the apex of my deconstruction/reconstruction. As I wrote in my initial post, following my sister Julie’s death at the hands of a drunk driver in March 2004, I tore apart my apparently perfect but seriously imperfect life, quitting my all-consuming job and my hopeless 18-year marriage. In July I had used my half of the proceeds from the sale of our two-story red brick home in the Memorial area of Houston to buy a smaller version in a gated community less than a mile away. I was 42, a single mom, just beginning to date, existing on fear and adrenaline, not so much wearing clothing as scaffolding.
Just a few days after my eleven-year-old son and I moved into our new home, a woman named Catherine called from LifeGift Houston. LifeGift is the organ procurement organization (OPO) that coordinated my sister’s organ and tissue donations upon her death. Their PR Director, Catherine, said that a “high-profile sports figure” had been the recipient of one of my sister’s tissues, and a reporter from Bloomberg wanted to write about it. Would we be interested in allowing this story to be told? My mom, my nephew Aaron (Julie’s only son, then 25) and I decided, probably more out of curiosity than anything else, that we did. Shortly thereafter Catherine called back to say the “sports figure” was Carson Palmer. Julie’s Achilles tendon had been used to repair Carson’s knee.
LifeGift arranged for Curtis to interview my family. I invite you to read his story, Unlikely Support System for Bengals’ Palmer, published in the New York Times on August 9, 2006. Among my favorite parts is a quote from Carson, “It’s amazing to think that somebody else is inside me. You look at the scar. You stare at it. You rub it. It’s given me a second chance at life. And I’m extremely grateful to this person.”
As a result of Curtis’ story, my family was interviewed by World News, Inside the NFL, the Houston Chronicle and a few other media outlets. We were also invited to speak at a handful of organ and tissue donor events around the country, spreading the word about organ and tissue donation. It was an exciting time.
Not long after, I was asked to serve on the Donor Board of Trustees of the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, the nation’s leading tissue bank. The Board is comprised of representatives of OPOs from around the country, LifeGift included, as well as representatives of the medical and funeral communities. I was to be the voice of the donor family, a huge responsibility. I was worried that my views, based on my family’s experiences, might not be representative of others’ whose deceased loved ones had been donors.
After accepting the MTF invitation, I flew to New Jersey for an orientation to the MTF. I learned that my sister’s tissues, recovered in Houston by LifeGift, had been processed right there at MTF, which I admit was kind of creepy. The MTF maintains detailed records of the disposition of all donor tissues, and they were able to pull Julie’s records that showed where her donations had gone. (Everything is kept completely anonymous; no names or other identifiers are included.) I was astounded to learn that upwards of 80 people’s lives were either saved or enriched by Julie’s donations, including of course Carson Palmer’s. When I would mention that figure to friends, they would always get that quizzical look on their face, that dog-with-the-head-cocked look. You could just see them doing the math in their heads: One heart + one liver + two kidneys, … And it just didn’t add up. How could you get to 80? The answer is tissue. Tendons, muscles, corneas, skin. Whereas organs must be transplanted almost immediately, tissues are frozen and can be used much later. The physician who performed Carson Palmer’s knee surgery (in Houston, coincidentally) on January 10, 2006, selected a tendon, Julie’s, that had been recovered nearly two years before.
During that time, we met and had dinner with Julie’s liver recipient, an older gentleman from Houston who had contracted Hepatitis C as a result of a Vietnam war injury. He would have died had he not received a new liver. He was so grateful for his life-saving gift. It was a wonderful experience.
My six-year tenure on the MTF Board gave me a peek behind the curtain of organ and tissue donation. It was fascinating. I learned that organ and tissue donation, so intensely human, is a business. I found that dichotomy both unsettling and reassuring. The MTF is a non-profit, run as an excruciatingly tight ship. The facility is immaculate, full of clean rooms where tissues are prepared for transplant. I was impressed by the facilities, the procedures and most of all the people. All of the people I encountered were first rate, highly professional and dedicated to saving lives. They never lose sight of the fact that the tissues they are processing came from generous human beings; they treat those tissues with the utmost care and respect.
My immersion into organ and tissue donation helped me understand how the whole donation process works. Despite the need for more lifesaving donations (currently, nearly 124,000 men, women and children are awaiting organ transplants in the United States), there’s a lot of misunderstanding about organ and tissue donation and transplantation that keeps some people from registering.
Among the myths:
- If they know I am a registered donor, doctors won’t fight (as hard) to save my life. Not true.
- I can’t have an open casket funeral if I am a donor. Not true.
- I am too old to be a donor. Not true. In fact, many in their eighties have been donors.
- I registered when I renewed my driver’s license. Isn’t that enough? Yes and no. I would recommend everyone do two things. First, go to donatelife.net and register there, just to be safe. It takes about three minutes. Second – and this is very important – tell your family you did. That way, if something happens to you, your family won’t have to make a decision; they’ll simply carry out your wishes.
In the fall of 2014, I was back on my sofa, but it was a new sofa, in a new home, the one I and my new husband purchased and furnished together. My life reconstruction was near complete. I was whole again, content. Then, out of the blue, I received a call from Dave Fleming, a reporter for ESPN The Magazine, who was working on a story on the use of donor tissue in professional athletes. In doing his research, he had stumbled upon the Carson Palmer story. Carson was now quarterbacking for the Arizona Cardinals and once again graciously agreed to allow his donation story to be told. Dave flew to Houston to interview my family (over Goode Company barbecue) and wrote a terrific story, Carson Palmer’s Lasting Connection, which appeared in the magazine’s December 8 “Big Money” issue.
On November 9, 2014, before the story actually appeared in print, Carson, then 35, suffered another crushing blow, to the same knee, in a game against the Rams. Dave called to tell us the bad news. My family’s eight-year run with Carson had come to an end. This time, the surgeon would use Carson’s own tissues to repair his knee. With Carson back in the news, ESPN (the network) ordered a companion TV story to air in the NFL pregame show before that Sunday’s NFL games. ESPN hurriedly pulled together a video crew, and Dave flew back to Houston to interview my family on camera. My mom, Dorothy, did an amazing job of telling our story on camera. I hope you’ll check it out.
As I stood in my kitchen, tears streaming down my cheeks, watching Dave’s television interview for the first time, I reflected on how those two interviews, with Curtis in 2006 and Dave in 2014, were bookends to a scary and exhilarating chapter in my life. It was a time of enormous grief and loss during which I said goodbye to both my sister and my life as I knew it. Through Julie’s death and donation, many individuals, most of whom I will never meet, have gone on to live joyous and productive lives, including me.