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Lois M. Collins: In death, an organ donor saved my family's life

Published: Tuesday, March 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Devie Thorpe hugs Rori Winterbottom as Rick Newlin wipes away a tear at LDS Hospital Monday afternoon,. Thorpe's daughter, Cavie, was killed in an automobile accident four years ago and donated her organs, of which, Winterbottom received a kidney and Newlin received a liver.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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We're in a restaurant, catching the early dinner special, and my 16-year-old is wound up tight, chattering about school and boys and the "bucket list" she and her friends have made for the summer that will soon arrive.

Her sister, younger by a year, leans over and corrects her on a detail and they laugh and babble some more, a pair of cheerful chipmunks.

This is the life that almost wasn't — my small family together doing something that's pretty ordinary and yet completely extraordinary, all present and feeling pretty good this bright March afternoon.

It is a vastly different picture from the last few years, when my husband was dying and our lives revolved around pharmacy runs and trips to the doctor and what the latest blood draw said about him.

We cared, back then, how well his blood clotted, how bad his liver enzymes were and what was happening with his kidney function. Ironically, we wanted them all to be bad, but not so bad he couldn't survive them. Those are the factors that determine one's place on the organ transplant list, where we had perched for five long years as he battled episodes of confusion and listlessness courtesy of the toxins that gathered in his body. We swung like pendulums between hope and hopelessness.

During that time, he found a painfully large online community of others waiting for kidneys or livers or hearts. They shared tips about medications and side effects, told stories that were sometimes funny but more often than not were about trips to hospitals and doctors' offices, and soft condolences as their ranks got smaller.

He increasingly struggled to make it through a day at work, so often coming home to crash in a very literal sense on the sofa, where he'd doze and doze and doze until time to go to bed so he could get up and struggle to make it through another day.

I'd steal a moment here and there to peek at the official organ transplant site, drilling down to our region and then our transplant center where it listed the number of people waiting in different categories. That way, I could get a sense of where on that list of other people waiting and slowly dying my husband and best friend was placed.

So many people wait for an organ transplant. Others whose loved ones no doubt prowl that same long list, seeking a bit of we're-not-alone comfort and will-we-make-it angst. It was impossible to be in that position and not yearn for a good result for every single one of them, or to begrudge anyone a place ahead of him on the list. I could see, each day, how much he struggled and how awful he felt. To think of being sicker than he was seemed impossible, but others were. Like them, he kept getting sicker.

Until the day that strangers saved us — not just him, but our two girls and me, as well.

We have, in five years, seen a lot of people die waiting, and others go on to transplant and a second chance. It is, in some ways, like a wheel you spin: You have to be the sickest viable recipient who meets particular criteria at the moment an organ is donated. A great many people do not live long enough to get one, because most people in death do not leave that bit of life behind for others.

This stranger did, along with gracious family, whoever they were. The donor didn't die to save my husband, but saved him in spite of dying.

We are at a restaurant to mark a transplant anniversary. So I watch my daughters laugh and chatter, the burden that nearly overshadowed their childhoods eased. And I say a prayer and whisper thanks to the family that gave my family this moment.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter: @loisco.

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