Organ donation: life after death

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Today is the one-year anniversary of her husband's passing, but Gertrude Frostad finds solace in knowing that through the donation of his corneas, his death helped others live.

"In a way, Norm is still living, through the eyes of those girls," Gertrude said.

On July 18, 2000, Norman G. Frostad died from pneumonia, which attacked his system after it was weakened by cancer.

He had been ill for a while, and at the time of his death, Norman and Gertrude were essentially living at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, far from their home in Kenai.

She and her husband were both born and raised in Alaska. Norman lived in Anchorage for a few years as a teen-ager, but for the remainder of their lives, including the 22 years they were married, they remained Kenai Peninsula residents.

Throughout his illness, Gertrude and Norman discussed organ donation in the event of his death.

"In the hospital, we discussed it a lot. We were both donors. It was something that he had always wanted to do," Gertrude said. "We talked about it so much, but at the time I was inclined to say no. I guess I was thinking of disfigurement, just really losing him."

However, in the end, she honored his wish and donated his corneas. They went to two 5- and 9-year-old girls from Japan.

The decision was made easier by the staff of Life Alaska, said Gertrude.

"They explained to me how it was going to be done. They were very, very supportive, and they still are," she said.

A year after Norman's death, Gertrude still receives letters and phone calls from the staff at Life Alaska. It was their supportive explanations that helped her decide to follow through with her husband's wishes, and it is their continued understanding that brightens the bad days.

"When Life Alaska found out that he was a donor, they talked to me about the donor program. These people have been really, really supportive," Gertrude said.

However, after reading the letters and thinking about her loss and the girls' gains, she said, she realized something important.

"I didn't lose anything. You become one when two people are as close as we were, and you don't really lose them."

She also said it helps to know that through Norman's death others' lives were improved.

"He and I both felt that it was one of the greatest gifts that you can give anyone, it sounds selfish in way -- you gave life to someone. But he wasn't that kind. He was one of the most unselfish persons.

"If he knew the corneas went to those girls, it would make him smile."

After Gertrude made the final decision to donate her husband's corneas to someone in need, Life Alaska forwarded them to Northwest Lions Eye Bank in Seattle.

From there, the clinic searched for possible recipients in the area and in Alaska.

Part of the clinic's agreement with Life Alaska requires that it search for beneficiaries in Alaska. None were found who could use them within the optimal five- to 10-day window when the corneas were usable, so the clinic contacted Japan.

No organ donor program exists in Japan. Therefore, they nearly always accept any offers, said Jens Saakvitne, director of Life Alaska.

Norman's case was no different, and two girls ended up as the recipients of his corneas.

Only 10 percent of all blindness can be cured with a cornea transplant. For someone with defective corneas, the world looks much like it would for someone who was forced to wear glasses with a soapy film covering the lens.

Gertrude said she would like to contact the girls who have her husband's corneas. In order to do that, she must write a letter to Life Alaska.

They in turn will forward it to the surgeon who performed the operations on the girls. It is then in his hands whether he gives the letter to the children and their families.

"Letters go back and forth," Saakvitne said. "Five percent get together. It is a combination of two things -- distance, and that one family is filled with joy and one, while they may be very happy to have helped someone, they are dealing with a lot of pain. They are just in such different places."

Although, Gertrude at least wants to exchange letters with the girls, she said, she would make arrangements to fly to Japan if the opportunity arose.

"Norm enabled them to see, I guess I want to go to see what he has done," she said. "I would (go to Japan), the first thing first, but they may want to just correspond."

It may be in part the support of Life Alaska that has enabled Gertrude to mourn her husband. The organization continues to offer her attention and resources.

"We try to make our focus care of the decedent family," Saakvitne said. It is not abnormal, he said, for organizations like his to counsel survivors.

"We do more than most. We think we are probably the best."

Life Alaska tries to make the decision to donate a loved one's organs as easy as possible.

"Even if we had a donor card with the deceased's name on it, we will honor the family's wishes," said Saakvitne. "We want it to be a family decision. In 22 years, only three have said no with a card."

State of Alaska law also allows for organs to be donated without a card stating a wish one way or another.

"When a family says we don't know, we tell them just think about how do you think they (the deceased) would decide," he said. "Families have to live with this, it is a horrible enough time without guilt."

"Seventy-six percent of the families we talk to say yes. Most of these calls are out of the blue."

One year after they first called Gertrude, the initial pain has subsided slightly and she occupies herself with a job she took shortly after Norman's death. She cooks for the children at Kenaitze Head Start.

"They have filled the void. They call me Miss Gert," she said. "It took away a lot of the pain."

When asked what she would like to say to people who are considering organ donation, she said, "I would just tell them to do it, because you couldn't ask for a nicer gift to give someone. There isn't anything better in my opinion. It gives you comfort to know that your loved one is going on and living through that person that he or she had helped."

Around 1,000 Alaskans receive organ transplants annually.

"One of those times it is going to be someone in your family," said Saakvitne. "Organs and tissues are too precious to turn into ashes and dust."

In the end, he said, it is a life-or-death situation. Gertrude agreed.

"Until this really happens to you, until it hits home, you just don't know," she said.

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