When my sister-in-law Patricia was a little girl, her mother had a sure-fire way of comforting her: She’d sit by Patricia’s side and stroke her blond hair until she fell asleep.
My mother-in-law stroked Patricia’s hair for the last time on Nov. 18. She did so under tragic circumstances in an extraordinary setting: a hospital operating room as a team of surgeons prepared to recover Patricia’s heart, liver and kidneys.
Patricia, a mother of three, was just 34 when she died from a severe asthma attack.
When doctors in southern Utah realized they would not be able to save her, her mother made a courageous decision.
She wanted to sit at Patricia’s side in the final moments of her youngest daughter’s life, no matter how traumatic those moments were.
Even though my wife, Elisabeth, and my sister-in-law Sandra, Patricia’s older sisters, tried to talk their mother out of it, Maureen Wagar – 59 years old, 5-feet-2 and 112 pounds — would not waver.
“I brought her into this world,’’ she said, “I will see her out. I will walk this last mile with her. Because that’s what a mom does.’’
It’s unusual for a family member to be in the operating room before a loved one’s heart is stopped.
Most hospitals won’t allow it. Doctors simply don’t want to risk any distraction from a relative who might become emotionally distraught.
In Patricia’s case, her mother had developed a rapport with the doctors and nurses at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, where Patricia arrived by medical helicopter the night of Nov. 14, after her 8-year-old daughter Catie found her unconscious on the living room floor.
When the reality of Patricia’s condition set in, my family’s immediate reaction was to abide by her wishes to donate her organs.
That’s when Maureen made her unusual request to Amy Flynn, donation coordinator for Intermountain Donor Services, which helps procure organs in Utah, southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming.
“I didn’t even think twice about it,” said Flynn. “I just wanted to see if we could make it happen for her.’’
Flynn was able to persuade Dixie Regional to agree — under two conditions.
They would erect a screen – a large blue hospital sheet — at Patricia’s shoulders to block Maureen’s view. And Maureen would have to leave the OR as soon as Patricia’s heart was stopped. That meant she would be present only for the preparation but not during the actual recovery of the organs.
Maureen told doctors she had no interest in witnessing the hectic and graphic recovery process. She just wanted to sit by her daughter for as long as possible.
“I was there when her heart started beating,’’ she told them. “I want to be with her when it stops beating.’’
Patricia was the youngest of Maureen’s three daughters, and her birth was the easiest.
As my mother-in-law recalled, she was cutting vegetables on a farm outside Syracuse, N.Y., on Aug. 11, 1978, when she went into labor.
About 15 minutes after a taxi dropped Maureen off at Upstate Hospital, Patricia was born.
Maureen smiled as she recalled the first thing she did when nurses placed the newborn in her arms: “I opened her eyes to see what they looked like. She had the longest eyelashes, and she had royal blue eyes.’’
Later in life, those blue eyes became a beacon for beauty that turned heads and broke hearts.
“Patty lived life,’’ her mother said. “Nobody stopped her.’’
When Patricia was 16, she persuaded her mom to let her go spend a couple of days at a friend’s house. “Next thing I knew, she and that girl had gone to California. They went across the country hitchhiking,’’ Maureen said, laughing.
At 107 pounds and 5-feet-2, Patricia was tiny — but she had a giant wanderlust and love for the outdoors.
She got annual passes to the national parks and took her three children — Emilia, 12, Mason, 6, and Catherine, 8 — to the Rocky Mountains, Allegheny National Forest and the Adirondacks.
“She was never sick until she had children, then all of sudden she had allergies and asthma and seizures,’’ Maureen said.
“She had a tough time going up in the thin mountain air, but she strapped on her backpack and strapped on one (kid) in the front and carried them up.’’
Patricia could be complicated, too, at times head-strong and unyielding, her mother told me. But she also was generous and giving. “When we’d see people who were disabled out in public she would ask them what happened to them, and was genuinely interested in the answers,’’ my wife said.
“She knew there were others less fortunate than her, even at a young age.’’
As an adult, Patricia helped anyone she could, though she often struggled herself and didn’t have a lot to give. One day after going grocery shopping, she saw a homeless woman on the side of the road. She pulled the car over and gave the woman most of the groceries she’d bought for her family.
At a shopping mall one day about 20 years ago, Patricia and her mother passed a hair salon that was promoting Locks of Love, a charity that collects hair to make wigs for cancer patients.
Patricia and her mother walked right in and got their hair cut together — dual donors for Locks of Love.
A few years later, after Patricia asked her mother what the red heart on her driver’s license meant, she signed up to be an organ donor, too.
Patricia struggled with respiratory issues the last 12 years of her life. She had a nebulizer and medication, and a routine she followed when asthma strained her breathing. But last November, she got bronchitis, and that made it worse.
On Nov. 14, Patricia suffered a severe asthma attack while sitting on the living room couch in her home in Enoch City, Utah. Her boyfriend, Joel, was at work, an hour away from home. Catie called for help after finding her mother on the floor in front of a window trimmed with Thanksgiving decorations.
Once paramedics arrived, it took them 25 minutes to re-start Patricia’s heart. But she would never regain consciousness.
She was air-lifted 50 miles south to Dixie Regional, where doctors worked furiously over the next two days to try to save her.
Maureen arrived on Nov. 15, after driving 18 hours in snowy weather from her home in northeast Colorado.
Later that day, my wife arrived from West Palm Beach, her middle sister, Sandra, arrived from Oklahoma, and Maureen’s husband, Lloyd, arrived from a job site in Nevada. A close family friend, Sheri, flew all the way in from Australia. And I arrived a day later.
Our bedside vigil was heart-wrenching. Patricia looked as beautiful as ever, even with her eyes closed, as if she were sleeping, except for the tubes extended from her mouth to the machine that breathed for her.
Patricia was pronounced dead at 8:18 a.m. on Nov. 17, but the machines continued to keep her organs viable while transplant recipients were lined up. Surgery to recover the organs was scheduled for the next night, a Sunday.
As nurses waited to wheel Patricia to the operating room, my mother-in-law burst into tears and prayed.
“I just held on to her and I reached up to her forehead, and I held her eyes open. And I said, ‘God, give us a miracle! It’s your last chance!’ He didn’t do it. I didn’t get my miracle because He had more miracles in mind for her.’’
As Patricia was wheeled down the hall, Maureen followed behind, putting on a surgical mask and gown.
One by one, each of the 12 doctors and nurses in the room expressed their condolences.
“Everybody kept thanking me for being there: ‘Thank you for coming. Thank you for being with your daughter. Thank you for being strong. Whatever you need, let us know.’ They were very welcoming, very glad that I could be there,’’ Maureen recalled.
She sat down next to Patricia. The blue surgical drape blocked her view below Patricia’s neck.
Someone asked what kind of music Patricia liked. Within minutes, an iPod piped in “Crazy Love’’ by Aaron Neville, “Shower the People” by James Taylor, “With These Hands’’ by Tom Jones.
Then, other sounds: The buzzing of a saw to cut through Patricia’s sternum. The gentle clanging of instruments used to trim away flesh around the organs. The slushing of ice being packed into the open body and into containers that would store the organs for their flights to hospitals where they’d be transplanted into waiting patients.
All the while, Maureen gazed at daughter’s face and stroked her hair, just as she had done so many times before.
“Patty had such beautiful long hair, and she was brushing it like a mother would do to her daughter. That was touching to see,’’ recalled Dr. Tyler Nelson, the anesthesiologist.
A social worker sitting next to Maureen suggested she take a lock of her daughter’s hair. That jarred my mother-in-law’s memory of that day 20 years ago when she and Patricia got their haircuts for charity.
She interrupted the doctors: “Can we take Patty’s hair for Locks of Love?’’ Maureen and Dr. Nelson took turns snipping Patricia’s hair. Most of the strands were dropped into a specimen bag. Maureen saved three locks, which she twisted into braids to one day give to Patricia’s children.
About 90 minutes into the procedure, surgeons cross-clamped Patricia’s aorta, stopping her heart. Maureen leaned in one final time to kiss her daughter goodbye.
As Maureen rode the elevator down to the lobby, doctors began removing Patricia’s organs. They started with her heart, which wound up going to a mother in Colorado.
Then they removed her left kidney, which went to a mother in Minnesota. Then, her right kidney, which went to a boy in Utah. Patricia’s liver went to a mother of five children in Utah.
Surgical technicians also recovered bones, tissue and arteries, which would be stored and used later to help others in need of hip replacements, knees and skin grafts.
Her remains would be cremated, her ashes kept in a vase in her mother’s home.
“She was a vessel to make many other people live,’’ Maureen told my wife and I about 30 minutes after her husband Lloyd picked her up at the hospital.
She was emotionally drained and physically exhausted when she plopped down on the bed in our hotel room. But for the next hour, she spoke in rich detail about what it was like to be with Patricia in the operating room.
Write about this night, she asked me. Write about Patricia and why she wanted to be an organ donor.
“If we can prompt even just one person to sign up (to be a donor),’’ Maureen said, “then that will be worth it.’’
When she was just about done talking, she smiled and described what happened as she walked outside the hospital after saying her last goodbye to Patricia.
“I looked up at the stars,’’ she said, “and the funny thing was, I saw a shooting star.’’
It was right there, streaking across the sky.
And Maureen thought: “That’s my Patty.”
ARE YOU AN ORGAN DONOR?
One organ donor can save up to nine lives through organ donation and improve dozens more through tissue donation.
More than 115,000 Americans are awaiting organ transplants to save their lives. Thousands more are in need of tissue and cornea transplants to restore their mobility and sight.
More than 6,500 people a year — about 18 a day — die before an organ becomes available.
In 2012, 14,013 people donated organs. Of those donors, 5,870 were living donors. The other 8,143 were deceased.
For information and to register, go to donatelife.net