Celebrating the gift of organ donation
"You don't take your organs to heaven because heaven knows we need them here," said Gloria Mattakat in her address to the crowd just outside the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center. It was a celebration of gratitude and hope to recognize community members such as Mattakat whose lives have been touched by organ donation.
The short ceremony on April 5 included a "Donate Life" flag-raising, stories from two community members, readings and prayers and bagpipe music. The ceremony was a collaboration between St. Mary's, the organ donation nonprofit LifeSource and the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank.
More than 118,000 Americans are waiting for the life-saving gift of an organ transplant and 22 die every day waiting, according to Katelyn Wilson, a registered nurse with LifeSource organ and tissue donation.
"That's what pushes us to work with our hospital partners to make sure people are aware of what organ donation can do," Wilson said. "Because in 2016, this hospital had six organ donors and 19 people benefited from those organ donations. And we've had two donors in 2017, saving nine lives."
During the brief service, Mattakat shared her story about her son, Tom Mattakat, who died on Thanksgiving Day in 1993 after a snowmobile accident.
"My son Tom was an all around typical guy. He loved snowmobiling, dirt biking, motorcycling. He was always busy working on projects in our garage," Mattakat said. "He was quite the handy man, he could fix anything."
Tom graduated from Central High School and joined the Air Force. After serving, he and his wife moved back to Duluth to be close to family. At the age of 28, Tom was in a snowmobile accident and Mattakat realized there was no hope for his survival due to his severe head injuries. A nurse asked if they had ever considered donating Tom's organs.
"That was a subject we'd never discussed as a family. But thankfully his wife spoke up and answered this question," Mattakat said. "Tom and she had watched a show on TV just two weeks before about organ donations. So she and Tom discussed the subject and they both knew they wanted to donate their organs when their time came. So on Nov. 28, Tom became an organ donor and he gave the gift of life to many people."
Tom's heart went to a nearby heart transplant patient Mattakat referred to as Susie. Four years after the transplant, Mattakat and her family met Susie after exchanging letters through LifeSource.
"Needless to say it was a very emotional time for both our families. Lots of hugs and lots of tears. Can you imagine hugging the lady who has your son's heart?" Mattakat said.
Susie passed away in 2007, but Mattakat said she was grateful that her son's donation was able to give Susie 14 more years of life. Now Mattakat serves as a volunteer with LifeSource, encouraging others to "choose to donate life."
David Stromgren, another community member with a personal experience with organ donation shared his story as a cornea transplant recipient. Stromgren started wearing glasses when he was 4 years old. He wore thicker and thicker glasses until he was 18, when he switched to contacts. Due to a disease called keratoconus, a deformation of the cornea, Stromgren had to wear old-fashioned and uncomfortable hard lenses because soft lenses would not lay flat over his corneas. In 2001, he received a cornea transplant.
"I'm one of the few people that can say their vision is better now at the age of 67 than they were as a kid," Stromgren said. "I no longer wear glasses or contacts. My vision is not quite 20/20, but I can see without the need of glasses for the first time since I was 4."
Stromgren said he's grateful to the 50-year-old person who donated his corneas.
"When you're a recipient, it's a tough thing to think about. That your life is better as the result of someone passing away," Stromgren said. "But I try to do what I can to encourage others to become donors. I've actually had my own organ donor card from the Kidney Foundation that I got back in May of 1967, so almost 41 years."
If you support donation, experts say the best thing to do is document your decision and tell your family. You can register to be a donor when you apply for or renew your driver's license or state ID, or by visiting DonateLifeMN.org. For more information on organ donation, go to life-source.org.