A lifechanging decision
Madonna Arsenault remembers the moment when her father, Robert Arsenault, Sr., began to give serious consideration to a kidney transplant. It was at one of his medical appointments, after he was told that his kidney function had declined to 13 percent.
“I said to the doctor, ‘why can’t I give him one of my kidneys?’ The doctor put his hands up in the air and said, ‘why not?’”
For years, Madonna had made it known that she was willing to explore becoming a living kidney donor to save her father’s life, but he was hesitant. He wondered what would happen if one of her children ever needed that kidney, or if a problem arose during the procedure that could change her life. Undeterred, Madonna reaffirmed her commitment to donate. Together, they decided to move forward, a decision that gave Robert four more years to make memories with his family, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“The decision brought so much joy,” says Madonna. “It’s really hard to describe it, but it brought our family closer together. And even now, three years since Dad died, he’s part of every conversation when our family gets together.”
The two-year journey to donation involved several medical tests and visits with doctors and transplant center staff. There were considerations that went beyond medical care.
“A couple of years before the actual transplant, you have to think about what happens if you’re not a match for your family member,” adds Madonna. “Would you still be willing to give life? For me, the answer was yes. The decision to donate must be truly altruistic.”
These days, Madonna serves as a volunteer Chaplain at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. As a valued member of the care team, she often talks with families of patients who are faced with decisions about organ donation.
“If they’re open to it, I tell them I’m an organ donor myself,” she says. “I’m able to share how it can make a difference in other people’s lives, even if my situation was different from what families of deceased donors face.”
Madonna notes that becoming a living donor is a lifechanging decision, and potential donors and their families should ask lots of questions to their provider team and consider talking to others who have donated.
“Explore the topic with the medical team,” she adds. “Learn all you can, and ask ‘what’s the process for me or my family member?’ You could be part of the solution for someone who doesn’t have to die.”
“I heard the heartbeat and I knew right away. I just started crying. It was very emotional because I just didn’t think I would ever hear that again,” recalls Dawn Chick, with her ear pressed against her son Justin’s favorite stuffed bear.
Justin had lost his life in an ATV accident several years earlier, but Dawn was able to hear her son’s heartbeat again because his heart sustains the life of a donor recipient who needed a transplant.
Dawn’s husband worked for more than a year to get a recording of the heartbeat from the recipient of Justin’s heart. Then, the heartbeat was placed on an audio device that was sewn into the stuffed bear. It was a very special Christmas gift for Dawn.
The family’s journey began on August 24, 2013, when Justin was brought to Calais Regional Hospital and then flown to Eastern Maine Medical Center. His family was able to communicate with him at first, but his brain began to swell, and doctors were unable to bring the swelling down. Once it became clear that Justin would not recover, his family began to think about organ and tissue donation.
“We were very fortunate that we had that discussion ahead of time so that when the time came, I knew what he wanted and that I needed to honor those wishes,” says Dawn, noting that Justin asked for the donor designation to be added to his license after he passed his driving test.
“I knew that we were going to be moving on to the next step, and it wasn’t easy, but time was of the essence,” she says.
Justin’s kidneys, liver, pancreas, and tissue saved several lives and improved many others. Dawn has connected with several of the people that Justin’s special gift has helped, and she has become friends with the recipient of his liver.
“I thought I’d be really overwhelmed with emotion, but I was just very happy to see how wonderful she was doing,” she says, recalling her first meeting with the liver recipient. “She let me feel the outline of Justin’s liver. I always thank her for taking the second chance and living her life and enjoying it, because those are the things that Justin would have wanted.”
Justin was known for making people smile when they were going through tough times. He was outgoing and could go into a room of strangers and quickly make friends. Given his good nature, Dawn wasn’t surprised that he wanted to help others.
“He would be humbled to know that these people are so, so thankful,” she adds. “We miss him every day, but to know that he’s living on in all these people and that they are living their lives and they’re seeing their families, I mean, what more could I ask for? He was their miracle.”
A second chance at life
Sandy White sat by her brother Stephen’s side at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston after his traumatic injury. When it became clear that he would not recover, Sandy, the sole decision maker in his care, made the heart-wrenching choice to discontinue life support. But she also had another decision to make: Should Stephen’s organs and tissue be donated to help others?
“Throughout the years, we’ve had many conversations about death and dying,” says Sandy, an oncology nurse on Grant 6. “I knew I had to respect his wishes, but organ donation was something we’d only had a couple of conversations about.”
Sandy was approached by a New England Donor Services (NEDS) representative and was surprised to learn of how many lives a single donor can touch. According to Donate Life America, one donor can save up to eight lives and improve the lives of many others.
After thinking it over, Sandy instructed the NEDS representative to move forward with organ and tissue donation. Stephen’s corneas, kidneys, heart valve, and vein tissue helped six people in total. His bone tissue was distributed to 15 states.
While Stephen received care in Boston near his New Hampshire home, Eastern Maine Medical Center plays an important role in organ and tissue donation right here in Maine. Transplant teams throughout New England work with New England Donor Services to procure organs from suitable Medical Center patients, then transplant the organs at transplant centers. In 2019, 24 lives were saved by donors at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, and more than 1000 lives were enhanced through tissue and cornea donation.
Recently, the Medical Center began to pay tribute to organ and tissue donors in a powerful new way: honor walks. During an honor walk, caregivers and family may share a few words about the patient’s special gift as staff from several hospital departments line the halls. Together, the group walks with the patient to the operating room in a show of respect.
Though an honor walk wasn’t held to recognize Stephen at Beth Israel, Sandy honored him in her own special way by playing his favorite song, Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55.” Sandy notes that life wasn’t always easy for her brother, and she knows he would have been proud to provide a second chance at life for so many others.
“He felt like he really didn’t make a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” she says, “but he was very kind, compassionate, and full of life. He would have been ecstatic to know that he did this.”
Sandy encourages families to discuss organ and tissue donation openly and make their wishes known. By signing up for the registry beforehand, individuals can avoid putting their family in a position to make a difficult decision.
“Talk to your loved ones about these types of situations in the moment and prepare your advance directive,” she says. “I always give my patients and their families this advice because it’s really important to make your intentions known. It could potentially save a life.”