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A Family's Tragic Loss Brings Others Hope

Medicine: A 13-year-old girl lies lifeless, and her devastated survivors must make a decision about organ donation. It's a scene replayed two dozen times a day across the country.

June 07, 1998|LAURA MECKLER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHILADELPHIA — Natalie Woods is too tired, too empty to listen. She's been at the hospital since last night, when her husband died. Now her daughter is dead too.

But kneeling before her on the cold hospital floor is Janie Hibbler. She's asking for her daughter's 13-year-old heart. She also wants her kidneys, her pancreas and her liver.

"She could possibly help other people," Hibbler says over the roar of machines that are keeping this young heart pumping and lungs breathing.

"I would be with her the whole time," she says. "We would treat her with all the respect and love that she needs and that she deserves."

*

It is a moment replayed two dozen times a day across the country. Half the people who are asked say yes, enabling 17,000 organ transplants each year. The other half say no.

Much of the discussion surrounding organ transplants concerns how to divvy up the scarce organs available, with economic, political and geographic fights overlying the 4,000 people who die each year waiting for a transplant.

But the heart of any transplant begins in hospital rooms like this one, where a 13-year-old girl has died and a devastated family is forced to make a choice.

*

It's an ugly car crash. The Ford Taurus speeds off the long exit ramp of Interstate 95 and merges into traffic at 75 mph. The driver loses control and bounces off two cars before crossing the concrete divider, smashing into oncoming traffic and flipping into a ditch.

It's 6:55 p.m. Wednesday, and the driver is pronounced dead.

Critically injured, his young passenger still is breathing as an ambulance speeds her to Frankford-Torresdale Hospital. But hope fades fast in the emergency room as an X-ray shows a crushed brain.

The trauma surgeon calls the Delaware Valley Transplant Program.

"Jane Doe" is now a potential organ donor, although it will be two hours before her family gets first word of the accident. A transplant coordinator, Chris Carroll, makes his way to the hospital.

*

The intensive care unit is quiet except for room No. 4, where nearly a dozen doctors and nurses are working on Jane Doe as Carroll arrives.

Blood is filling her skull and sputtering out of her eyes, nose and swollen lips. Small pools collect on her light brown skin. Gauze is wrapped around her skull, as her long, black hair flows off the pillow.

A tiny braid still hangs along her face.

But nothing else is right. Her blood pressure is extraordinarily low, and there's little oxygen enriching her blood. Suddenly her heart stops, and doctors must shock it back.

Quickly assessing the situation, Carroll figures Jane Doe will not be an organ donor. Her family hasn't even been found. The best candidates are brain dead but stable long enough to allow a family to consider donation and for coordinators to make dozens of complex arrangements.

Meanwhile, the patient's lungs are filling with blood, and doctors attach tubes to her chest to drain them. Before long, plastic containers on either side of the bed will be filled red.

*

Natalie Woods is pacing, checking the window, watching for her husband's Ford Taurus to pull up. Anthony should have been home hours ago, and her back pains sharpen each time she sees it's not him. He and FaLon, her daughter from a previous relationship, were just going to the grocery store.

There is already enough stress in their lives. Yesterday, the family moved out of a homeless shelter and into a Days Inn. Natalie Woods is hoping the new car will help her husband find and keep a job.

Then she looks out and sees a police car:

There was a crash. Her husband is dead. Her daughter is in critical condition.

*

In intensive care, word comes that state troopers have found the girl's family. Jane Doe is now FaLon Willis, three days short of her 14th birthday. With the family on the way to the hospital, donation is suddenly a real possibility. Carroll calls his office to report her blood type, height and weight. The numbers are entered into a computer, and minutes later, hundreds of names awaiting transplants scroll across a screen.

*

Natalie Woods doesn't change out of house slippers before rushing to the hospital. Doctors give her the bottom line: FaLon isn't going to make it. She doesn't believe them.

"No," she says to herself. "My baby's going to make it."

She keeps hoping as she makes her way to room No. 4 and sees FaLon's swollen, bloody face, so different from the young woman who dreamed of being a model, whose sparkling eyes dance through the family photo album.

Woods clutches her hands over her mouth as she approaches.

"Oh my God. Oh! Oh!" she cries. "Mommy's here for you, honey. Oh, please. Oh, God. Please."

Dr. Charlie Goldstein explains that doctors haven't yet performed tests to determine whether FaLon is brain dead, although they are virtually certain she is.

Woods rocks side to side as she tries to absorb so much information.

Suddenly she doubles over, leaning on a nearby nurse who guides her to a wheelchair. She's wheeled away from her baby, back to the waiting room, to wait.

*

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