The Harvest and the Regret

I’m not particularly fond of the term “harvesting” when it is used to describe my husband’s organs.  His body wasn’t a pumpkin patch or a wheat field, yet the term is used to describe both the collecting and reaping of a crop or the removal of bodily organs.  Not the same thing at all.

I remember the day Jason died more vividly than any other day of my life, even our wedding day unfortunately.  I received a call saying I needed to get to the hospital right away.   I was then herding into a small room along with his sisters and mother, a representative from the marathon group, and an extremely unpleasant and insincere hospital chaplain, who in hindsight I should have politely asked to leave.

Everyone in the room knew the truth already but I was still holding out hope, waiting for the doctor to casually stroll in and tell me that everything was going to be just fine.  Jason was 31 and extremely healthy.  What could possibly go wrong at a half-marathon with the sun shining and his family visiting from Florida?  When the ER doctor finally arrived I remember him coming with an entourage which included a social worker and additional hospital staff.  It all seemed like overkill to me when all he needed to say was “Jason is doing great!  Sorry for the scare!  Would you like to go see him and take him home?  He said he’s starving and wants to stop for breakfast on the way back.”   Instead I stared blankly at him while he said “I’m so sorry Mrs. Schlosser but we did everything we could.”  I was still holding his gaze pleadingly, waiting for the other words I wanted to hear to come out of his mouth. His sister looked at him and said “she needs to hear you say the words.”  And that is when all hope was lost.

I’m not even sure what my reaction was because time truly did cease and I had a moment where everything just turned into loud static inside my head.  I couldn’t make sense of what was going on around me and people were talking but I couldn’t understand them, as if they had invented their very own language.  Then suddenly the phone mounted on the wall started obnoxiously ringing and dislodged me from my head.  We all looked at each other and someone picked it up…it may have even been me.  It was Carolina Donor Services wanting to know what was in it for them.  They briefly apologized for my loss and then immediately launched into questions about the medications Jason had been taking, where he recently traveled, what he ate on those trips, what cities he visited in Asia, what dates he was there….and on and on and on.

Did they understand that my world just imploded?  How in the hell should I know what he ate and where he visited on these trips to China….I couldn’t even recall my middle name or the last thing I had eaten.  I wasn’t even sure Jason wanted to be a donor because we never really discussed it, and unfortunately I didn’t have his driver’s license with me so I couldn’t even look for the little heart that says “it’s all yours when I’m gone.  Harvest away!”

I quickly discussed the possibility of organ donation with his mom and sisters and we all decided that it was something Jason probably would have wanted…and then I handed the phone to his sister because I just couldn’t talk to them about my husband in the past tense yet.  Thank goodness she was there to pick up my slack.  It had been about 5 minutes since the doctor walked out of the room and the chaplain coldly and ignorantly said to me “he’s in a better place.”  I was still waiting for it all to soak  in and become a permanent stain on my (on our) existence .  It’s still soaking in almost 5 months later.

Because of the donation procedures we weren’t left with much time to say our goodbyes.  The social worker and the repulsive little chaplain (who will have his very own story one of these days) escorted me to Jason.  I walked down the overly lit corridor with arms holding me up on both sides and was delivered to the foot of his bed.  There is was, covered in the Project Linus with tubes sticking out of his mouth, the hum of a ventilator, and a large neck brace to keep everything from moving around.  I couldn’t bring myself to sit down.  All I did was stare down at this unstoppable force in my life and see how weak and vulnerable he had become since 7am, the last time I saw him that day.  I leaned over and kissed his forehead paying special attention to the mole I always referred to as his power button.  I would press it sometimes in the morning trying to rouse him from sleep.  I told him how much I loved him and how much I was going to miss him, and how I wanted to come too and would hopefully be right behind him.  I was hoping death would take me too that evening, as seemingly peacefully as it took Jason from me.  No amount of time would have been enough.  I wanted to lay on top of him and not let him out of my site, but I was afraid I would hurt him….yes, I was afraid I would hurt him despite the fact that he had been dead for well over an hour.  The ventilators and slightly still warm skin are misleading.

I tried desperately over the following days to make peace with our hasty decision to allow the “harvesting” of my husband.  I looked at his driver’s license and didn’t see the heart.  Then I started to second guess myself as remorse and regret took over my every waking thought.  It was too late though and there was nothing I could do other than burrow under the covers at night and secretly apologize to him through rivers of tears and piles of wet tissues.  I kept telling myself they only took his lungs, or so I thought at the time, and that someone would be the lucky recipient of life because Jason made it possible.  He always went out of his way to help others and why would these scenario be any different for him.

I woke up in a panic two nights after Jason died because I started thinking about his intense and beautiful brown eyes, and I suddenly had the sense they weren’t his anymore.  How would he find his way home after we allowed them to steal his eyes?  Even now I can barely write these sentences because I feel nauseous at the thought of pirates gathered around my Jason, pillaging all that they could like some vile and sick scavenger hunt.   I envisioned buzzards and vultures circling overhead waiting to dive in for the leftovers.   I know it sounds selfish and I never imagined I would have an issue with organ donation but it is harder to reconcile when it is someone you promised to love, protect and cherish.

I received a card in the mail the very next day from some eye association thanking me for the donation, as if I had donated an old pile of clothing that no longer fit me.  I only shared my fear about donating his eyes to my mother and she was in charge of retrieving the stacks of mail arriving every single day.  She had intercepted this letter but I got sight of it anyway.  I immediately fed the card to the shredder and wanted to scream but I couldn’t.  There were already people gathering in my house and dropping off food.   I had to hold it together.  None of the visitors had any idea that I stayed awake the night before wondering how Jason was going to find his way home without his eyes.  I was also perplexed by everyone’s appetite, and almost envious.  I was hungry but couldn’t chew food, and when I did try to swallow my mouth was too dry to move it down the throat…so I gave up food for several days.

I received another letter from Carolina Donor Services about a month after Jason had died informing me they were unable to find a recipient for his lungs.  The letter also stated they would be using all of the other parts of him for various experiments and tests, none of which made sense to me or gave me “warm fuzzies” about our decision.  You name is, and they took it.  I started to wonder about the open casket, would there be anything left to see?   I kept recalling the way Jason looked in his casket and the way his chest felt when I put my hand on it.  It felt like metal.   His eyes were sunken and his lips were pale.  HIs hair looked too fluffy and ridiculous.  There was nothing left inside him.  They had stolen it all and left us a shell.  And yes, I’m very angry at how this process works as if that tone hasn’t shown through my words.

I know time is of the essence when someone dies and someone else is waiting on the donor list.  I had a friend who was waiting on a kidney transplant.  He never got the call and eventually died waiting for the phone to ring.  He had a wife and young kids.  I get it.  I really do.  I just don’t like the fact that we were forced into making a decision about what to do within minutes of finding out my husband was dead.  How can a person possibly absorb such news and then be expected to make decisions before the first tear has even had a chance to drop?  And even once we made the decision nobody came to talk to me face to face to explain how this process was going to work.  All I knew is that he was being transported to another facility where they would take his lungs.  End of story.  It didn’t seem that terrible at the time but I only knew 3% of their plans.

I still apologize to Jason for not keeping all of my promises.  I did love him but I don’t feel as though I cherished and protected him.  Instead I allowed strangers to cut him open and steal from him, and it was all for nothing.  I remembered tonight while talking to my counselor that Jason was an avid blood donor because he had type O blood…the universal donor.  She told me that should give me some answers on whether or not I did the right thing.  I guess I know in my heart that we made the right decision but it truly is one of the most difficult things to reconcile, and I am still fighting the feelings of guilt.   Although the experience was miserable and something I want desperately to forget, I myself am still a donor and hope that I may be of benefit to someone someday.

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2 thoughts on “The Harvest and the Regret

  1. I also authorized donation, but he was only eligible for heart valves, tissue, eyes, and nerves. On the awful phone call that came much too soon, they explained in detail how the “material” would be removed and how it would affect a viewing should I decide to have one. I chose instead to have him cremated. So, in the days following, I pictured each of those procedures being done to my husband and wondered what I would do. At the time of the call, no one was there to guide me. I made my decision because the friend that drove me to the hospital and was with me in the crowded hallway where they destroyed my world is only around today because of a liver transplant in his early 20’s. Once his body was released to the funeral home, visions of his body being scavenged with replaced by visions of him being burned. I tried so hard to stay distracted during the time frame I knew the cremation had to be occurring, but I just kept seeing him burning and wondering what the hell I had done. To be honest, both facts still haunt me.

    I got a follow up letter from the donation center saying they were able to use his tissue and a heart valve, but the decision I struggled with the most, which was to have his eyes donated, was for nothing. I keep thinking I let them take his eyes and no good came of it. So long, rambling post made short, I felt and feel much of what you wrote today and I thank you sincerely for sharing.

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    1. It sounds like your own experience was as traumatic and full of mixed emotions as mine. Just keep focusing on your friend who was there by your side because of a sacrifice another family made, and know that you did the right thing…even though it feels like betrayal.

      There is a reason why they say “the eyes are the windows to the soul” because the eyes say everything we need to know when they belong to the person we love. Knowing that I had apparently allowed those to be taken bothered me more than anything.

      I did however hear an interesting and timely story the day of Jason’s funeral. His mother was in the back of the limo that was driving us home and she told me about Jason’s stepdad’s grandchildren who both have a degenerative eye disease, and will go blind before they turn 20 unless they find a transplant. What a story! She shared with me this story, completely unprompted, right when I was gazing out the window and crying because I had to read the final letter I had written to Jason to him, because of course he couldn’t see it. Our minds play these absurd jokes on us don’t they? Everything irrational is suddenly completely rational.

      The cremation bothered me as well but all I could think is that I KNEW Jason wanted to be cremated, and I know I wanted him with me always, even if that meant a heavy box with sharp edges not designed to be hugged. It would have been worse if I had buried him. I would think about him in the hot and oppressive sun, or in the freezing cold, or under puddles of water and gray skies. I think he likes it better where he is because we see each other every day and I know now that he is as safe as he will ever be.

      Thank you so much for sharing your own experience with me. I know it is very difficult. It does make it a little easier to know I’m not the only person feeling kind of selfish and regretful, despite my logical brain telling me I did right by Jason.

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