Here in Hawai‘i, Legacy of Life works with local families through the complex process of organ donation.
Felicia Wells-Williams was working as a nurse in the pediatric ICU Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women & Children when she had an epiphany of sorts. Two cases in particular changed the course of her life—one involved a 4-year-old and another, a 6-year-old. Both children eventually became donors, and watching those families respond to the situation inspired Wells-Williams to get involved.
So when a position at what was then Organ Donor Center of Hawai‘i opened up, Wells-Williams applied.
“If somebody would have told me I would stay there for 23 years, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so,” she says with a laugh.
But stay she has, having remained with the organization—now known as Legacy of Life Hawai‘i currently serving as director of family services.
In addition to serving as an educational resource to the community and hospital staff, Legacy of Life primarily works with families whose loved ones become donors. As a federally designated private nonprofit, Legacy of Life facilitates organ and tissue donations in the state.
Organ donations are very rare, notes Wells-Williams. On average, Legacy of Life might only talk to about 40 to 60 families each year about choosing this option. In these instances, the donor in question was healthy at the time but faced an unexpected trauma leaving them brain-dead.
The more common death, she notes, is when the heart stops. In these cases, corneas may be used to help others who have an injury to their eye. Skin tissue might help someone recovering from a burn or mastectomy procedure. Bone could be used to heal someone who had a crushing injury or a bone tumor.
Each is vitally important, and Wells-Williams says the ability for families in these situations to find a silver lining never ceases to amaze.
“The idea that somebody who is grieving can step outside of that and think about somebody else—it’s really extraordinary,” she says. “I would be completely understanding if a family was so wrapped up in their own pain that they couldn’t think of someone else. That would make sense. But that’s not what organ donor families—that’s not what Hawai‘i families are about.
“They are stepping right outside of that, and giving and sharing even in the midst of their own grief,” she adds. “It’s really inspiring.”
On average, Legacy of Life works with close to 200 families every year whose loved ones become organ, cornea, tissue or bone donors. In addition to helping families through the donor process, the organization also provides crisis intervention, immediate bereavement support and other informative resources. Sometimes, a loved one might pass without having ever indicated what to do in these circumstances, which is when Legacy of Life helps families understand what being a donor means.
“For most families, when they originally become an organ donor, they find some comfort in knowing that something positive can come out of a tragedy, says Wells-Williams. “When they learn that they can help someone else, they often find comfort and … most families will say that it’s consistent with who their loved one was—they were giving and sharing and caring when they were alive.”
Legacy of Life also offers ongoing support, thanks to a team of people Wells-Williams leads that consists of nurses, social workers, counselor and pastors. Every year, for example, the organization offers a program called Hope for the Holidays, which brings donor families together during what can be a lonely time of the year if a loved one is missing. Another event in the spring unites families and transplant recipients together (though usually not the exact donor pairing) to give both groups the opportunity to share their experiences.
The organization offers its support in smaller ways, too. Legacy of Life always is looking for volunteers willing to knit shawls that are passed out to families in the hospital. Yes, it provides warmth in a setting notorious for its chillier temperatures, but Wells-Williams points out that it also is a symbolic gesture.
“When we are able to share with families this shawl, it’s a reminder that … you’re not alone and that the community is behind you.”
Legacy of Life also is always looking for support from the other local organizations and people in the community—whether it be in the form of helping in the office, volunteering at events or sharing an idea. But the simplest way anyone can help Legacy of Life is by getting educated on what it means to be an organ donor—and then registering or telling a family member about it.
“That’s one thing that everybody can do,” she says. “Really learn about it, think about it and make your own decision.”
To learn more about becoming an organ donor and how Legacy of Life Hawai‘i helps families and the community, visit legacyoflifehawaii.org.