How to Save a Life

Here in Hawai‘ i, Legacy of Life works with lo­cal f am­i­lies through the com­plex process of or­gan do­na­tion.


ELICIA WELLS-WIL­LIAMS WAS WORK­ING AS A NURSE IN THE PE­DI­ATRIC ICU AT 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

Fburn 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.”

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