By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Northborough/Shrewsbury – The marching units of the recent Spirit of Shrewsbury Fall Festival parade included over 40 volunteers of Donate Life New England. The group consisted of transplant recipients, donor families and others touched by donation. While their reasons for marching varied, they shared an understanding of the powerful message emblazoned on their T-shirts: “Donate Life.”
The effort to raise awareness was organized by Northborough resident Penny Brown, a kidney transplant recipient.
“We all have the same message,” Brown said. “There was someone out there who was generous enough to be a donor and save my life, so I's getting the word out to register to help save others.”
Among the donor families were Sue and Ray Cote of Shrewsbury. Their son, Chris, drowned while canoeing on Lake Quinsigamond at age 39 in 2009. When Sue read on Facebook about Donate Life New England participating in the parade, she wanted to become involved.
“It's been four years since Chris passed away,” she said, “and I felt that I's finally ready to volunteer and do this.”
The Cote family has always been supportive of organ donation. Sue and Ray are each registered as donors. A brother-in-law on Ray's side of the family is now living healthy after a heart transplant. But Sue acknowledges it was difficult dealing with the subject while beginning the mourning process of their son.
“We got a phone call early in the morning of his passing, asking for organ donation,” she said. “The fact that he had drowned, they couldn's use his heart for a transplant, but they could use it for research. I said yes. It was hard. I actually felt like I was giving him away piece by piece.”
They later learned that their son's corneas were transplanted to two different recipients. His jaw bone was transplanted to a recipient who suffered a sports injury. Nineteen skin grafts helped those in need of abdominal wall repair, cleft lip and oral plastic surgery.
Sue and Ray are glad they volunteered to march with Donate Life New England.
“It was incredible,” Sue said. “We had so many recipients around us. You could see the results of what can happen.”
Brown noted that the organization's volunteers include a mix of recipients and donor families.
“Transplant affects more than just the person who gets an organ,” she said.
Brown has polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and received a kidney transplant 15 years ago at age 39. Her mother died of PKD when she was 39.
“I was so sick for years,” Brown said. “I had no energy and was in extreme pain. I went into complete kidney failure.”
She was on dialysis for 11 months when a kidney became available. She was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night for transplant surgery.
“As soon as I woke up from surgery, I felt amazing,” she said. “I didn's realize somebody could feel that good. Now I's a normal, healthy person.”
Brown now speaks about donor registration at community events, civic group meetings, and high schools and colleges.
“Most people usually become donors after an accident,” she noted. “My donor was only 22 and he was in a car accident.”
She corresponded with her donor's parents by postal mail. In their reply, Brown was told that he decided to register as a donor at age 18. She was also informed that his organs saved five lives.
“They sent a picture of him and I carry it with me all the time,” Brown said. “Not a day goes by that I don's think of him.”
For donor registration information, visit donatelifenewengland.org.