This week, Henry Mackaman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison college student, died from bacterial meningitis. On Monday he didn't feel great and so decided to walk to the local hospital for care -- he had a headache, a fever and his right hand "felt funny." He died on Wednesday, two days later.
I didn't know him, but my sister did. She plays in a band in the Twin Cities, and so did he. She wrote on Tuesday: "I just found out a friend of mine got meningitis and went into a coma last night after surgery -- pretty frightening. I don't know much about that sickness, I didn't even think people still got it really. Waiting for updates every hour, hard to just carry on and be at work."
On Friday after he died, my sister wrote to tell us about his two best friends and band mates. "It's been especially hard seeing them in so much pain," she said.
I consider myself young. I've just turned 17 and am, right now, in the midst of figuring out what college to accept -- deciding where I am going to be for the next four years of my life. For all intents and purposes the rest of my life is just beginning. It's a confusing time and I'm weighing the "fit" of the schools, their distance from where I live, the preparation I might get for becoming a doctor. What I've been surprised by is that in figuring all this out -- my first major independent decision -- I am also being confronted by my mortality, the fact that to make a choice means to decide not to make others, and that I will never have those choices again. Arriving at this realization has been strange because when you're young you do feel immortal, as if you could do anything, at anytime, as if you have all the time in the world.
So in the midst of my personal decision-making and my pondering my future came the news of my sister's friend. I've been thinking about my future in terms of what liberal arts college or Research 1 university do I want to go to, and suddenly with the news of Henry's death I realized that I've been living in a rather idealistic, romanticized world, where only those who are old have limited choices, as if by being young I am somehow exempt from the concept.
On April 10, the day Henry died, his mother, wrote on Caring Bridge that "All of us are proud of Henry for making the decision to be an organ donor. This generosity shouldn't surprise anyone who knows him. With his decision, up to 54 people will benefit from the incredible life that Henry lived." The next day Henry's uncle told the Star Tribune that Henry's organ donations "saved seven lives."
To me, Henry's choice to be an organ donor, made while he was still alive, was an incredible affirmation in his future. By being able to provide life-saving aid to others, he survives on through others. Is that not the same as a scientist leaving behind her discoveries after she dies, or a mathematician his theories? They persist through the help they give to others, continually recycled -- remembered for their continued importance and impact.
Organ donation is an interesting concept, not only in biomedical terms, but also in ethical terms -- one balances thinking of a dead patient as a person, an individual, but also as an assembly of parts. While in some religions and social and cultural situations organ donation may be considered to be cruel violence to a corpse, to me the person that used to exist no longer inhabits those cells and tissues; my memory of that person doesn't require a physical tether.
To me, the disassembly of one body in order to reintroduce into an ailing body what that second person needs is a kind of immortality for the first dead patient. So I was struck by the words of Meredith Mackaman, Henry's mother, who seemed to take comfort in knowing that her son, who was never supposed to predecease her, may yet still be able to save another family from the devastation that his family feels.
My parents have "organ donor" listed on their driver's licenses, so too do my siblings. When I get a license I will check that box too. In the midst of planning for my future career as a doctor, I want to also plan for an unexpected future.
Final Thought: The death of someone young always seems violent; it's the annihilation of a life, a future that had yet to be brought to fruition. Allow yourself to feel the pain, because it is not always bad, it reminds us that we are alive and that there are limits. But know too, that whether the deceased gave their organs to others or they were buried or cremated intact, they have been incorporated into the life that we see all around us, they help to give us the beauty and the pain and life that we all share.