Organ donor's gift should be inspiration to all of us

Even in death, Sara Ballard, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason and Thurston counties, found a way to keep giving to others.

Ballard was an organ donor and her gift of life may benefit as many as 50 people.

The 36-year-old Ballard should serve as an example for other South Sound residents who are considering signing a donor card. People can register in advance or agree to be a donor when renewing their driver’s license. Donors have a red heart imprinted on the front of their licenses.

Ballard’s death at such a young age shocked the community. She was hospitalized over a weekend after suffering a stroke caused by a blood clot in her lung. Ballard, a registered organ donor, became a donor candidate when she was declared brain dead on Tuesday March 29. She was kept on life support until about 8 p.m. the following day when a team of doctors began the organ recovery.

Her parents, Jim and Nancy Ballard of East Lansing, Mich., take comfort in knowing that their daughter was able to bestow the gift of life on others, and they hope that by sharing her story, others will become organ donors.

“When we were at the hospital, we found out that not many people donate, and we were surprised by that,” Nancy Ballard said. “Perhaps more people will become aware of it and really see the importance of it.”

Nationally, there were just 7,943 donors in 2010, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. The number of donors in Washington state last year was 11. In South Sound since 2007, there have been just five organ donors at Providence St. Peter Hospital and none at Capital Medical Center.

Andrea Gregg, a spokeswoman for LifeCenter Northwest, the organ-procurement organization that works with patients in Washington, Alaska, Montana and northern Idaho, said about 70 people — including the pilots who flew the helicopters carrying Ballard’s organs and the couriers rushing blood samples to the lab — were involved in Ballard’s organ recovery effort. It’s a huge – but rewarding — undertaking.

Within hours, Sara’s right kidney, liver and corneas were flown to hospitals throughout the region and transplanted into other people. Her parents weren’t given many details, but they cherish the ones they heard.

“The woman who received Sara’s liver had a birthday five days before that, and said it was the best birthday present she ever received,” Nancy Ballard said. She and her husband say they know their daughter would be glad she was able to help so many people.

Nationally, at any given time, there are more than 100,000 people waiting for an organ transplant. Sadly, an average of 18 of those people die each day waiting for the gift of life that never comes.

Contrary to popular opinion, people are never too old to donate their organs. Officials at the Mayo Clinic say organs from people in their 80s have been successfully transplanted. And sometimes when organs cannot be donated, they are used for scientific research — research that can lead to life saving advancements in medicine.

Organ donation is one of those difficult decisions that deserve candid conversations among family members. Deciding to end life support in a hospital setting is a wrenching decision, but people who have shared their intent with their loved ones in advance, or signed up to be an organ donor, help ease the decision making process.

Not everyone will feel comfortable signing the organ donation registry. It’s a very personal decision — but a decision that should be made without delay.

Sara Ballard’s death and her advance decision to be an organ donor should serve as an inspiration to others in South Sound. Don’t procrastinate. Have the discussion and make the decision today.