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In Memory of a Great Brother

Eye Donation Speech - Oct 30th, 2005

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Eye Donation Speech - Oct 30th, 2005
March Anniversary
In Memorial

Spoken at the Lion's Eye Bank Corneal Donation Recognition Service...
in memory of Nate and for those families whose loved ones donated corneas in the first 6 months of 2005

I’m here today to tell you my family’s story of how we became involved with the Lion’s Eye Bank Corneal Donation Program. Unfortunately, membership to this club is a high price. We have all lost loved ones that can never be replaced. And we all made life changing decisions to have our loved ones live on through a corneal donation. The decision you made for your loved one-done at the hardest moment in your life is to be commended. I know, I’ve been there, and with everything else that you feel at that moment of loss, to think of others is a wonderful thing.

My brother, Nate died on March 16, 2004 at the age of 21. Nate suffered from depression and tried to take his life by hanging himself in my parents garage. Our dad found him, called 911 and he was rushed to HCMC here in Minneapolis. When we got the devastating news from the doctors that there was no hope, that he had gone too long without oxygen to the brain, and that it was only a matter of time before his body figured that out, our family was faced with many decisions. One of our first hopes was to somehow make good from this tragic situation. Our dad firmly believed there was a reason he found Nate in time and was able to restore his breathing. What was that reason? How could Nate help someone in his dying?

We talked to several people at the hospital about donation and found we could donate his corneas. My parents didn’t hesitate to sign the papers. We left the hospital that night praying someone would be healed and we could find peace in our grief.

Nine months later we got a letter from Jackie telling us what had happened to Nate’s corneas. One of Nate’s corneas went to a 47 year old woman who suffered from Stevens Johnson’s Syndrome which causes corneas to become very thin and a thin cornea can rupture if not treated, causing someone to lose their eye.

Nate’s other cornea went to an 88 year old woman with an auto-immune disease. I would repeat it for you, but I can’t dicipher the technical terms so I’ll use the abbreviation they do, KLAL. My family’s first reaction was, "An 88 yr old? How much time does that woman have left? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to give it to a child? To help a young person?" I think in the back of our minds we always thought that Nate’s corneas would be transplanted into someone who would have another 50 or more years of life. What a joy to know he lived in that person far beyond the 21 years we got! What a waste to give to an old woman who might have had one foot in the grave already?! And that’s when my usually quiet younger brother spoke up and said, "No, a waste would have been to see it in the grave rotting away, not helping anyone."

He was right. Does it matter who Nate helped? The point is someone’s life was altered by his donation. I did some research on KLAL surgery and even without a medical PhD, I was able to grasp that this is a ground breaking surgery. It is very important that healthy, young stem cells are used. They are grown in the lab an then transplanted to the recipient in hopes of creating a stable eye surface for a corneal transplant later.

Nate’s girlfriend works in a home with disabled people. She told me after his death that he would call and talk to her while she was there at night and the residents would want to talk to him. There was an elderly gentlemen Nate would talk with and go on and on. And since his death he has asked about him often. It was then that it hit me that Nate did not discriminate, why should we? He would be just as proud to be part of the 88 yr old woman’s life than a child’s. He would be happy to know he made a difference.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew this is what my brother would have wanted, to be part of something bigger than himself. In 2003 only 130 KLAL surgeries were done compared to 46,000 standard corneal transplants. Nate was such a character, outgoing, fun and always goofing around. I don’t think he would have settled for anything less than being a part of this woman’s life. Even if the surgery with the 88 yr old wasn’t a success, he had made a mark in corneal research to further technology and help someone in need. And if that woman were my grandma and she could live a few more months or years without pain, I would be thrilled.

Many times we do not realize the importance of our family members until we lose them. Such is the case with my brother. There is so much about him and how he treated people that I did not realize until later. And I regret that I did not appreciate him more while he was here. But I am so proud to say that through his corneal donation, two other people were able to benefit from him. They were able to enjoy the gift of improved or pain free sight and in turn give us some comfort while we continue to grieve his death.

You also made the decision to donate. I don’t know what your situation was or how old or young your loved one was when they died, but a loss is hard no matter what the circumstances. By choosing to donate, I hope you can also find some comfort in knowing that they live on in another person and if one day you find out where your loved ones corneas went, no matter what they were used for - research or transplants - know that your loved one’s gift was an unbelievable act of love and sacrifice and you can call them a hero. I know I count Nate as one.

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