GLEN BURNIE, Md — Driving from her North Carolina home to Glen Burnie, Carol Kelly embarked on a seven hour trip, though the journey truly started five years ago.
That’s when the toughest day of her life became the greatest relief for at least three other families.
“It was hard because I know what I’m coming for and it brings it all back,” Kelly said of her travels. “It was hard to come here today, but still knowing what the cause was about, it was fine, it was sad and happy and a whole lot of other things all mixed up.”
Five years prior, a weak heart had sent Kelly’s son Tim Brockwell to University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center for treatment. As his condition declined, eventually his body could no longer sustain itself, Kelly said. After three days in the Intensive Care Unit, Kelly was informed her son had passed, and a conversation began about organ donation. There were fellow patients in Maryland who were in need of organs Brockwell could provide, and Kelly had known her son’s wishes in such a tragic situation.
“He wanted to pass his life on, and he did so,” Kelly said of her son’s desire to be an organ donor. “That was just exactly who he was, to give back and always give to those in need.”
Both of Brockwell’s kidneys, as well as both of his corneas, were transplanted to patients waiting for such generosity. Now two people with renal issues were given new life, and at least one person was given the opportunity to see.
“Donation does bring a positive to a negative situation,” said Debbie McRann, the Chief Clinical Officer for the Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland, the organization that aids in organ procurement, facilitating transplantation and donation in hospitals and providing support to families and education to the general public about organ donation.
McRann was one of roughly a dozen people who joined Kelly in the five-year memorial of Brockwell’s donations. After the original life-saving procedures, a Donate Life Flag was raised at BWMC recognizing the first such organ donation at the facility. On Jan. 4, 2019, the flag was raised again on the fifth anniversary, bringing Kelly, loved ones, hospital staff, and members of the Living Legacy Foundation together to speak of the virtues of organ donation and the legacy of Brockwell.
“Today was really to honor him and all the people who have made the decision to extend their life to someone else,” said Kelly. “To me the flag is such an honor to do for all of us.”
“When people see that donate life flag flying, they’ll see it, feel inspired, know that someone at the that hospital gave the gift of life, just as a reminder of this incredible process,” said Allison Byers Coleman, the Public Relations Coordinator for The Living Legacy Foundation.
That inspiration to become an organ donor is needed, Coleman and McRann said. Nationally there are roughly 114,000 people waiting for a lifesaving transplant, according to data from The Living Legacy Foundation. In Maryland alone there are 3,400 people in need. Yet McRann said there are only about 150 to 160 organ donors per year in the state. Each donor can help save up to eight lives, potentially saving or enhancing the lives of 75 people through tissue donation.
“Give it some serious thought, just try to keep your life moving in someone else is the most wonderful thing you can do,” Kelly said. “You don’t know when you might be in that situation too, that you might need to receive maybe a kidney or a heart or whatever, so we just don’t ever know what life is going to bring us.”
Luckily for Brockwell and Kelly, her son had expressed his interest in organ donation prior to his passing. A motorcycle accident when he was 18 had Brockwell going in and out of the hospital for six months before doctor’s determined one of his legs would need to be amputated.
“That time made him aware of everything as far as how to donate, how to give back when you can, because he heard a lot about that with all the time he spent in the hospital,” Kelly said. “That was just exactly who he was, to give back and always give to those in need.”
During the flag raising, the process of registering as a donor and articulating your intentions was explained and encouraged. Marylanders interested in becoming organ donors can make that designation when obtaining a driver’s license from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, or by registering at Donate Life Maryland’s website. Even after handling the technical end of donor registration, make sure to talk with family and loved ones, as medical officials often defer to their wishes after a potential donor has passed.
For those uneasy about becoming a donor, McCann was quick to dispel a popular myth.
“The number one common myth is that doctors won’t work as hard to save your life if they know you’re designated on your license,” said McCann. “That’s absolutely not true. The doctors at hospitals do everything possible to save your life, and we don’t even talk about donation until further into the process when it’s clear nothing more can be done.”
Since Brockwell’s donations in January of 2014, BWMC has had 45 additional organ donors and 116 tissue donors, as well as 75 “donors in spirit” – patients who designated their intentions and whose families agreed “but for one reason or another were not able to donate,” Coleman said.
“Anyone listening, please, please, please be a donor, get on the registry, help your life to go on,” Kelly said during the flag raising. “It will live on and on and on.”